Ayesha Raees’ fabulist and fable-like chapbook, Coining a Wishing Tower (Platypus Press Broken River Prize winner, 2020, selected by Kaveh Akbar), is composed of 56 prose-like blocks—give or a take a few half-fragments.
These prose-poems, which are whimsical, profound, vulnerable, and full of pathos, grief, and transformation, depict complex relationships between parents and child, religion and women, lovers and the beloved, wishers and wish-granters. There are three separate narrative strands, teleporting between Pakistan; New York City; Makkah; New London, Connecticut; as well as more abstract spaces, like a Desire Path, as well as Barzakh (which, the chapbook tells us, Google calls a “Christian Limbo”).
The first narrative involves House Mouse, who climbs and climbs until the “end of all possible height” and finds itself in a wishing tower which can grant all its wishes. House Mouse performs various rituals including the ritual of death—in which both House Mouse and the tower die. The second strand, taking place in a wooden house in New Connecticut, involves three characters: Godfish, a cat who is in love with Godfish, and the moon, who is also in love with Godfish. And finally, there is the more realist narrative strand, with a female speaker—a daughter and an immigrant—who seems to speak for Raees herself, and her own personal experiences with family, religion, migration and displacement.
She is interviewed here by Cleo Qian, previously published in Issue 25.
CQ: How did you come up with the characters of House Mouse, the tower, Godfish, the cat, and the moon?
AR: Each character in the book embodies, not always wholly or too literally, a person of importance from my life. The book itself was conceived the night that I found out my best friend, Q, was in an irreversible coma due to a (eventually successful) suicide attempt. The characters in the book are my own reckoning with the different facets of the deaths we face in our lives before our eventual, more literal, ends. But I did not want this book to be so linear or literal; I wanted it to tackle death in varying ways.
House Mouse represents every young immigrant. Immigrants must leave their “selves” or “homes” for a better future, which is the mirage of the “American dream”—which calls for outsiders to come in and fill the gaps of a decaying system. Asian immigrants also, in many ways, are pressed for success or “height” to obtain ‘value’ from a very young age.
As a poet, “House Mouse” is also a play on words. What happens to a common house mouse when it is without a house? What happens to a young immigrant when they leave their homes for the world’s seductions?
The wishing tower is a symbol of the Ka’abah but is also something of extreme physical height, an unreachable thing. “Coining” in the collection’s title reflects stoning—a visual gesture, with prayers or wishes. Godfish is a play on goldfish, but this character also represents another close friend of mine, A, who was another young immigrant who left home to America to pursue another life and was lost in a tragic way. And the cat and the moon are, at the end of the day, spectators, both holding power but choosing to practice it in different ways; they are two faces of a white savior complex and American passivity.
I don’t believe I would have been able to say all I wanted to say without the aid of characters in this book.
CQ: Let’s talk a little bit about the settings mentioned throughout the book. What is the significance of the setting New London, Connecticut? Early in the book, you write, “I have never been to New London, Connecticut.” In the narrative of the Godfish, cat, and moon, New London is both real and unreal, and the wooden house they live in is centric to “unnatural happenings” and set apart from the “real life giant black road.” And what about the sites of pilgrimage throughout the book? Is America also a site to make a pilgrimage to, or is it a place to escape to?
AR: I have a love for places and the social cultures they inevitably hold. I am someone who has been in constant movement her whole life, and I believe places to be their own characters, to have their spirits. Therefore, the different locations in the book are all real, even the unreal ones. They are their own breathing, living organisms.
And that’s how New London, in Connecticut, feels to me. I have never been. In the book, it is a place of “unnatural happenings” as, just as written in the book, it is a place where Godfish died.
The character who is embodied in Godfish was my high school best friend, A. He went to Connecticut College (in New London, Connecticut) and was hit by a drunk driver while he was crossing the road at night to go to his dorm. The drunk driver, instead of calling for help, pulled A’s body aside and drove away. Leaving him. Right there. To spend a cold December night outside. He was found the next day. His date of death is merely an estimation.
I was myself a sophomore at Bennington College when I received the news. This was December 2015. I was devastated. Over the years of grieving, New London, Connecticut became a significant image for me. The side of the road A was on was very real. I don’t know what it looks like in real life. But in my head, there is a whole image. I live with the happenings of that night every time I am grieving. How can I have such vivid imagery exist when I was not even physically present? That’s the power words have over me.
The moon that captures and cannot fully lift Godfish embodies “moonshine,” intoxication, which failed both Godfish (and A). In the end, my friend was a gold marking on the road. And I believe when I started to write about Q [my friend who passed away after being in a coma], A came forward into the poetry as well. They both took me on the journey of characters and settings, and the book’s narrative reckons with all our losses and its impact.
Is that a sort of pilgrimage? I believe so.
CQ: The book opens with House Mouse climbing and climbing until it gets to the wishing tower. Godfish wishes to be able to swim to the sun, its beloved. The moon wishes to draw Godfish to itself. In Islam, Jannat-ul-Firdous, we learn, is a “place in heaven that is of the highest level, reserved for the most pious, the most special, the most loved.” Do you think the striving for height is a universal human desire? How do height and religion intertwine?
AR: Who are we but an accumulation of our wantings? Humans have inane, uncontrollable, desires that make us get out of the ordinary and strive for something that can give us, even for a single moment, a rich breath of fresh extraordinary. To be human is to be full of wanting, to exist in that kind of inevitable strive. And that kind of striving will always achieve some kind of height.
But my goal through the book, and of course for my own reckoning as a young ambitious Asian immigrant in the American landscape, was to ask what those systems of value ask of us. These “heights” we climb to that are a measure of our worth, giving our human life a value. In order to have value, we keep climbing. But until when?
I was thrown into this disarray because Q and I were ambitious young Asian women from so-called “third world countries” and quite alike in our dispositions. We wanted to be accomplished. To have value as individuals and not be reduced to our Asian womanhoods. But that striving killed us. I watched her fall. And I found myself falling. Like most Asians, we were sold to ideas of hard work leading to value, such as our grades, the length of our CVs, the honors and fellowships and residencies and awards. We were accomplished. But we did not have enough value to win the system that was built against us.
So what did we strive for?
As I was grieving, religion became my literature and God my mentor. I grew up with Islam but as with most religious countries, religion seeped in as a way of life rather than a radicality. Islam is a part of my cultural identity. It is part of my language. Islam is a constant reminder of how to live a life that prepares us for death. And even though I am (and was!) so young, to be handed so many deaths of so many loved ones left me in disarray. I was alone in the American landscape without much support or, as we all have experienced our capitalist systems, empathy. When I finally turned again towards Islam, I was looking for some sense that the West, and Western literature, could not afford me.
I will always say that I am not a religious person. After all, religion is a tool to control the masses. I don’t want Coining A Wishing Tower to be a religious book. I am, however, deeply spiritual. I do have faith in the unknown. I do believe in a God. Maybe when I am brave enough to proclaim it externally, I can even say my God. I have belief in the many rituals that help us decipher the literals of our lives towards a healthy figurative. A true kind of poem. It is inevitable for me to not see God with poetry.
CQ: Many of the prose poems—and the arcs of the House Mouse, the tower, the Godfish, cat, and moon—are written in a parable-like tone. Some of them also verge on fairy tales. You have such wonderful lines and imagination when, for example, House Mouse is cooking in the tower:
“House Mouse cooked fish for the first meal, corn for the
second meal, and melted cheese for the third meal. The
tower is one room full of great imaginings working towards
not staying imagined…”
Or when the moon tries to bring Godfish to itself:
“With every mustered strength, the moon lifts the water, rounds
Godfish into a dripping ball and pulls it through the opened
window only to bring it to a float and a hover in the storming
snow of New London, Connecticut….”
What was the influence of parable and fairy tale in your writing of these poems? Do you consider these narratives allegories?
AR: I celebrate poetry because a good functioning poem has great intentionality. If you spend enough time even with a single line, you can see how the poet has chosen to lay the words next to each other the way they are. Nothing is random. And everything adds to something else.
I do a lot of work with symbolism and imagery, often lent from my own life. I am always in awe at the contrast and the magic I see in front of me. For example, I am currently in Paris, sitting in a gorgeous reading room at Bibliothèque nationale de France (National Public Library of France) answering these questions, where I find myself watching a parade of silent children running through the rows of hunched working adults. They are not laughing. Or making any kind of noise. They are just running through the gorgeous rows of tables. What a contrast! What image and magic! And hardly anyone is looking up! Doesn’t that feel like a fairy tale? Or an allegory? Children running through a grand beautiful reading room of a world-famous library full of frowning adults?
I do the same in the verses you have pointed out. When I put [these contrasts] of the imagined and unimagined together, I surprise myself.
CW: Do you believe in epiphany? How does epiphany play a role in these poems?
AR: I believe in wonder, which can be quite like epiphany, but is not always the same. Epiphany feels like a lightbulb moment of occasional discovery, but wonder feels like a series of discoveries that were always present but are now fully being seen.
In this way, the form of the book holds a kind of wonder. It is an epic told in fragments. Even though I wrote it linearly and the editorial process did not include rearrangements but just clarifications, I saw how one narrative thread began to breathe while still supporting the other threads.
When I read the book out loud in readings, I flip through the book at random and read pieces from it. I am faced with more wonder in this as well.
CQ: Google is also frequently cited throughout the poems. Often, Google’s word is taken as factual and fills in missing gaps in the speaker’s knowledge—e.g. Google speaks on the status of New London, Connecticut, as a small city; on how many lives cats have; on what Islamic Barzakh is. Why did you invoke Google and what is the role of human technology in understanding these characters and poems?
AR: Isn’t Google some form of god now? We rely on it for all our small and big questions and immediately believe what it tells us. “Google says…” instead of “God says.” I find in both these common phrases a kind of significant mimicry.
In a past that’s not too far off (I am thinking of my parents’ lives), information was not accessible at all. My parents were probably faced with so much unknown but still had to strive forward with whatever understanding and skills they did have. They couldn’t just Google how to exactly use a new microwave they bought or how to apply for a visa to travel. In these observations, Google has become such a huge part of our contemporary lives that without it, we wouldn’t often know what to do. And with it, we often are also told how to live a life and exactly what to do.
Maybe I wanted to have Google in the book because so much of our consolations and salvation hinges on asking. In the past, we sat in prayer and asked. And now we get on our phones, maybe our hands poised ritually the same, and ask. We get answered in both ways. We believe. And sometimes, we don’t.
CQ: Another theme that pops up in the latter half of the book is forgetting. Of the Islamic heaven, you write, “Any kind of remembrance of our past lives, any regret, every love, it will all be flushed.” You, the speaker, ask if you will be forgotten on the day of judgment, and the mother says, “It’s inevitable…you will forget me too.” When the cat finds Godfish, dead, you write, “Would death tear them apart to a degree of absolute forget?” These lines really tugged at my heart. The fear of forgetting my loved ones after death is terrifying . How are these poems a response to the question of whether death is the ultimate forgetting?
AR: What we don’t remember also brings us relief. That’s the concept most Muslims have about death and afterlife. If I don’t remember the extent of love I feel for my mother, I would not feel the extent of her loss. I would be relieved of grief and the pain of it.
This is scary. But also, to some degree, comforting. There is consolation in thinking we won’t always be yearning for the ones we lose.
I have tried to tackle the question of love and endings through the poems in small and big ways. The last prose block of House Mouse “returning” holds that life and death can exist in mimicry. But what bridges each ending with another beginning is change and transformation.
CQ: There are a series of transformations: Godfish into a fish, the wishing tower into a pile of rubble. Are these “failed” transformations? Are they an inevitable part of the cycle of life?
AR: I don’t believe in “failed” transformations, and I think maybe that was what I was trying to truly say throughout this epic. Even though Godfish loses its God-ness, its existence still transformed the moon and the cat. The wishing tower is no longer able to grant wishes, and then it loses its life. But it transforms into something else, even if that is rubble which will erode away.
These losses are, in some ways, an indication of life’s inevitable end, yes, but [writing this book] also gave me the gift [of knowing] that there will always be some kind of other journey. Any end we think of is a ripple effect towards something else, beyond comprehension.
These fragmented thoughts are captured in the fragmented poems. We can see the “afterlives” of House Mouse, the Godfish and the tower. [I wanted to show how] there is never any true failure in our conventional ideas of failing. Things that “fall” fall to somewhere else.
CQ: Do you consider these poems of loss?
AR: Absolutely. But not only. These poems are full of grief. But also consolation. Also philosophical nurturings. They are an encouragement to move away from our unconventional thinking of the most universal experience of loss itself.
CQ: At the end of the book, House Mouse is somehow resurrected. I loved this ending, which felt joyous, miraculous, and yet also sad and full of grief because there is no one around to meet House Mouse. What are we to make of House Mouse’s return to life? What is House Mouse returning to?
AR: House Mouse holds huge parts of me as well as huge parts of the speaker, which, of course as poets say lingo, is both me and not me. The speaker leaves home, Pakistan, and goes to America, fulfilling her teenage dream to leave, but the speaker also returns. And with every return, there is change. Decay. Death. Loss. Transformations.
And each immigrant really asks these questions if they return [to where they have left]: “What am I returning to?” “What makes life life here and how much of it I have left?” “Who waits for me and who could not?”
“What has died and what still lives?”
Returning is hard. It is full of lamenting and an inconsolable feeling. We have to reckon with the relativity of time, the loss of romance, and changes that override our initial memories. House Mouse finally returns to the home which it left in the first prose block of the book. But so much has changed. What is home now?
I think there is consolation and love in the fact that we have our return. Even if our parents die. Even if our houses change. Even if the furniture gets full of dust. Just because there is this kind of loss, does not mean we do not feel all the presence of what home is there. Maybe, in life, forgetting can relieve us of pain, but remembrance reminds us of the original love we were given, however much it has been transformed.
CQ: You published Coining a Wishing Tower during the lockdown. Where were you, location-wise, when you heard that your book was accepted for publication? How did COVID-19 affect your experience writing and publishing this chapbook?
AR: This is actually a funny story. The day I got the email that I won the Broken River Prize from Platypus for the book was also the day Biden won (or, well, Trump lost) the elections—November 7 2020. We were all under strict Covid lockdown, but because of the election results, the streets of Brooklyn were flooded with cheers and shouts and music. We all ran through the streets. In that way, I felt I was also celebrating my own little win of accomplishing a dream (the wish I had coined a long time ago). The book was mostly written in 2019 around the loss of Q. But this book definitely was a huge victim of the pandemic aftermath. What with delays in publishing and then my press’s bankruptcy, my book only had a life in this world for one year. But I believe in its return. The life after its life.
CQ: What’s next for you?
AR: Even though I often fail to keep it as simple as the words I am about to say, all I truly desire is to keep writing. I am deeply in love with poetry. And I don’t think this affair will end at all. I am hoping to keep at it and, in small and big ways, keep being read.
To more poems! To more books!
Ayesha Raees عائشہ رئیس identifies herself as a hybrid creating hybrid poetry through hybrid forms. Her work strongly revolves around issues of race and identity, G/god and displacement, and mental illness while possessing a strong agency for accessibility, community, and change. Raees currently serves as an Assistant Poetry Editor at AAWW’s The Margins and has received fellowships from Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Brooklyn Poets, and Kundiman. Her debut chapbook “Coining A Wishing Tower” won the Broken River Prize, judged by Kaveh Akbar, and is published by Platypus Press. From Lahore, Pakistan, she currently shifts around Lahore, New York City, and Miami.
Sarah Audsley is a Korean American poet from rural Vermont. A graduate of the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College, her debut book of poetry Landlock X (Texas Review Press, 2023) explores the intricacies of being an adoptee not only through the textures of language but also visual arts crafts, such as collage. Deeply pastoral, and with the sense of the handmade, her poems aim to unstitch ideas of identity and what it means to be American today.
FWR: I’d like to begin by asking if you could talk about the use of the x symbol in your poems. Throughout the book it’s used to stand for an unknown variable, but also signals the X chromosome, multiplication, reincarnation, and erasure and absence, as well as the speaker herself. Can you tell me a little about where you got this idea from, and how it developed throughout the process of writing the book?
Sarah Audsley: Yes, the symbol “X” is doing a lot of work in the book. The manuscript went through several revisions and through that process I realized I needed (and wanted) a thread that connected the poems across the three sections. The concept of being a landlocked person, someone who is separated from and not touching water, or, in the case of the adoptee, separated from their origins, came to me and then it all clicked into place. The “X”, as you mentioned, is many things, but I also wanted to consider all the variables that make up a life, in particular, all the (un)known variables (and therefore consequences) of adoption. In the revision process, I was guided by two of the earliest poems in the collection: ‘When My Mother Returns as X” and ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos.’ I think it’s remarkable how the writer can only see the breadcrumbs she’s already written for herself after some distance and perspective. So, all I can really say is that I followed the trail I’d left for myself.
FWR: Mathematics in general is also a recurring motif in the book, especially in the poems ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos’ and ‘Continuum’. Can you tell me more about your interest in math?
Sarah Audsley: Mathematics does recur throughout the collection, which I think is spurred on, partly, by the symbol “X.” Honestly, I am pretty horrible at math, which may be why, in poems, I’m interested in the field of study purely from a theoretical standpoint. I am also thinking about how the speaker of the poems is one adoptee among so many. Numbers are only able to tell one kind of narrative. How do we calculate our decision making? How do we face the totality of so many relinquished and exported children? The last sentence– “I am all those mathematical distances”–in ‘Origins & Forms: Eight Sijos” somehow, in the context of the adoptee narrative, makes sense to me. Finally, I think the subconscious and the poet’s obsessions with certain ideas, is how themes like mathematics recur; it’s really not an overtly conscious process.
FWR: I loved how many of your poems incorporated the color yellow – as a woman of color I love writing about color! – but in particular I loved how you reclaimed the color from its racial connotations, such as in the poems ‘It Was a Yellow Light’ and ‘Broken Palette :: a retrospective in panels’. Could you talk more about your intentions around this?
Sarah Audsley: Yes, the color yellow is featured prominently in the collection and becomes one of the important threads throughout. “Crown of Yellow”, a poem early in the collection, was an important poem and began my exploration of the color yellow. I leaned into exploring the ways the color yellow recurred in my memory bank. I also did some research on its historical use and picked up art books on color theory. I am glad the reclamation of the color yellow resonated with you. As an Asian American, it is an important color to consider. I wanted to explore “yellow” not just in a racial context (which is so important), but also in art and culture, and to also mine my own memories and associations with the color.
FWR: You’re also a self-described rural poet. How would you say place and/or the pastoral influence your writing?
Sarah Audsley: “The rural poet” seems like it is in contention with “the city poet.” For me, maybe it is! Because, for me, place and my connection to place is essential. I enjoy visiting cities and being an interloper in city life, but I will always choose to live in a rural place. Walking my dog three times a day, cross country skiing in the winter, and hiking in the mountains in the summer, offsets all the daily computer grind. I like to think, too, that it feeds the work. To put it in another way, I’m a better poet if I’ve spent some time outside noticing and moving in the woods. The natural world offers me a sense of belonging. So, of course, this will appear in the poems. As for the pastoral poetry tradition, two poets and influences come to mind: Vievee Francis and the “anti-pastoral” poems in Forest Primeval, and Jennifer Chang’s Bread Loaf Lecture, “Other Pastorals: Writing Race and Place” (June 2019, available here.)
FWR: One of the major threads throughout the collection is the narrative of the speaker as a Korean American adoptee in search of her birth family. The quietly devastating ‘On Meeting My Biological Father’ is contrasted with poems on the possibility of meeting a half-sister, and meditations on the speaker’s deceased birth mother. While the process of searching for a birth family as an adoptee must understandably be a difficult and complex one, the book ends on a positive note with the speaker contemplating her mother’s reincarnation. What was the process of writing these poems like for you and where do you sit now with your relationship to your birth family?
Sarah Audsley: I am grateful for the opportunity to write and to think deeply about adoption (my own) and how it is situated within the larger adoption industrial complex. My relationship to adoption, and my birth family, and the term ‘family,’ in general, is not fixed in any way. Instead, I think it will continue to evolve and change over time. Landlock X is just one attempt at grappling with it all. I hope the collection adds to the ongoing conversation around adoption, and I’m pleased to offer it as one more voice contributing to adoptee poetics. (Check out The Starlings Collective.)
FWR: It’s clear that visual arts is a large part of your practice, as the book is scattered with many photos and documents in English and Korean associated with your adoption process, such as the average measurements for Korean children, or advice on creating cross stitches to ‘celebrate your Korean American culture.’ In response you’ve altered these texts with additional text or drawings or photos to create a kind of documentary collage. Can you talk a bit about how art inspires your poetry and your process around it? Are there any multidisciplinary artists in particular who inspired you?
Sarah Audsley: The visual components in Landlock X are important to the overall conception of the project, but they came later in the manuscript’s evolution. (I very much feel like I dabble in the visual arts and have not achieved any sort of mastery in that field.) As I was revising the manuscript, I turned towards collage, which makes sense to me as a way to access and interrogate texts through visual elements. The visual components (visopo or visual poetry) provided a way to examine and interrogate my adoption records in a new way that the traditional lyric and narrative poems could not. (Sometimes we just don’t have the words. Sometimes the image functions louder than the words. Then, the combination of the two creates a new alchemy. Here, I am still experimenting, and that feels freeing.)
In many ways, these files and records of my adoption are one form of my inheritance. I think of the collages as a transformation and reclamation of that inheritance. My parents diligently kept an archive of my adoption records and associated paperwork in file folders in a filing cabinet in the basement of our house. Working with them was a natural evolution in the writing process. The collages in Landlock X complete the overall vision for the book, and I’m grateful that Texas Review Press included them. Some influences and books that inspire me (some for their inventive use of text and image): Cleave by Tiana Nobile, Hour of the Ox by Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, Ghost of by Diana Khoi Nguyen, Litany for the Long Moment by Mary-Kim Arnold, Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung, Olio by Tyehimba Jess, and many more. (One more thing: adoption records are not always reliable or accessible, and in some cases they do not exist at all.)
FWR: One of the biggest nods you give to your love of ekphrasis is the structure of the book, which is divided into three sections — one for each of the words of the ekphrastic poem ‘Field Dress Portal,’ which you wrote in response to a friend’s painting. Can you tell me more about this collaboration and why you chose to structure the book this way?
Sarah Audsley: ‘Field Dress Portal’ is an important poem for me. Structurally, I wanted the collection to hinge on that poem, which is why it appears about half-way. ‘Field’ represents all the nature elements and the interrogation of the pastoral mode that recurs throughout. ‘Dress’ represents performative actions, costumes, exteriors, looking at something at face value, etc. ‘Portal’ represents transformation, metaphor, moving beyond this reality into another…So, these section titles provided structure and also each carried, in my mind, their own meanings. They also function like a triptych, which I really like, and they also helped me sequence the manuscript and to place the three erasures.
The poem uses the painting ‘Field Dress’ by Lauren Woods as a jumping off point. I watched the painting change over time as the painter posted images on social media and I was enamored. We’ve never met. We’ve only exchanged a few notes here and there when the poem was published in the New England Review. The ekphrasis mode feels challenging. It also makes sense to me as a way to engage with art, and to practice seeing and describing. It is another way to connect beyond the self. However, what fascinates me is how the selective process of describing actually reveals something of the speaker’s inner workings, their perceptions. In this way, ekphrasis as litmus test, is another way into the mind of the speaker of the poem, and, also, into the mind and heart of the poet.
Winner of the 2022 Théophile Gautier Prize in Poetry from the French Academy, Sandra Moussempès’ collection Cassandre à bout portant (Flammarion, January 2021) explores the haunted aesthetics and violent dialects attributed to women’s lives. Raw and rigorous, the poems in this collection channel women’s voices as they disembody and re-embody in language, tapping poetry’s potential as a space of rebellious empowerment.
FWR: How did you both (or each, if separately!) stumble across Sandra Moussempès’ book, and what about it called out to you? Was there a particular quality about it—or even a particular poem within it—that led to the “coup de coeur,” the lovestrike, the desire to rebirth it in your mother tongue?
Amanda: That’s what usually happens to me when I really love a poet or author whose work is not yet translated, but in this case, Sandra actually reached out to me through a friend in common. I dove into Cassandre à bout portant with the idea of translating it and it became immediately apparent to me that these poems needed to exist in English. They often rely on imagery associated with the United States, Hollywood cinema, advertising, and the stereotypically feminine that we can trace to those spaces, so it just seemed logical to me to bring the poems into the language of that world. I would say that my reading experience was already infused with the idea of a translation to come, and that for me, these poems have a particular call to be translated into English that I felt I could respond to. But I didn’t think I should translate them alone. So I reached out to Carrie, a friend and poet I admire greatly.
Carrie: For me, there was a bit of stumbling across the book. The day after I spoke with Amanda about the possibility of working on a co-translation of Cassandre à bout portant, a book I did not know by a writer I had not heard of yet, I assisted an old professor of mine in finalizing a large order of his at the Tschann Libraire on Boulevard du Montparnasse. While waiting on him, I drifted towards the poetry section, and, there, in a face-out display, was Sandra’s collection. Because I had already been clutched by the conjurations of the title (a linguistic pull which remains rather undiminished for me when I think of this work) and because the object itself was so electrically pink, I found myself rapturous to pick it up. I already knew this was my copy. I bought it. It felt like a big yes. It felt like good chemistry. It felt like the best kind of adventure to embark on with fellow writers and feminists.
Like Amanda, when I read the poems, I had translation in mind and felt quickly how their lines contained refractions of my homeland, elements that had romanced and troubled me. The book seems to be particularly infatuated with women who have in their enshrinement been ensnared. And Sandra traces that through, yes, cinema but also very surely through the “tragic” women — Emily, Virginia, Sylvia (for within the work they are almost always invoked by first name) — of English literary tradition. I felt, then, that Sandra’s project, while certainly moving to me, could also speak to a larger audience.
FWR: What led you to decide to undertake this project together? What is the process of co-translating like for you, and what do you think are some of the unique boons and challenges of having a companion in this kind of experience?
Amanda: Sandra Moussempès’ poems speak of and to women. They inspire sorority and solidarity, which is actually an approach to translation that I had already studied in particular among women translators in Québec. It seemed to me that this was a unique opportunity to put it to practice, precisely because the work seemed to call for women to come together in language, to find a common voice that contests the norms usually imposed on it, which translates in the poetry to a kind of paragrammaticality and awareness of being a woman in language that I think Carrie and I both identify with. For me, the positive elements of this experience with Carrie are so overwhelmingly dominant. Getting to have a second set of eyes and ears, a second experience with the text to compare to, and a larger sounding board for ideas while translating is such a rich experience.
Carrie: The plurality of women’s voices, what feels like archive at the same time as new utterance, in Cassandre à bout portant is what has made me feel that this work in particular necessitates more than just one mind considering its English articulation. Amanda and I, perhaps due to our previous creative and research-based work, seemed to both desire a process that would allow us to not only work on the word- and expression-level matter of the poems but also to interrogate what the work was doing in time, both literarily and to us. I have very little doubt that Amanda could have translated a version of this book on her own, but if she or I had gone forward independently, we would have denied ourselves a lot of meaningful conversation around French and English expression, as they relate to the narration of women’s lives.
FWR: What have been each of your journeys into the world of language and then into translation specifically? How did you each meet and fall in love with poetry? With French? I know that you, Carrie, are a poet, and you, Amanda, are a scholar of comparative literature. In what ways do you feel the act of translation connects with, diverges from, and even influences your individual writing practices?
Amanda: Language for me is a tool for emancipation: be it a “foreign” language or a particular use of, or creation within, a language we consider native, speaking and writing is about finding a voice. It’s about bringing something into existence – be it a voice, a concept, or an image – that didn’t previously exist, like one of my favorite poets Nicole Brossard expresses through the notion of “l’inédit” (the term she uses to describe something that has been denied by language and society but that can be brought into being). This is what fascinated me, as a young woman, about foreign language, and this is ultimately what I have come to appreciate about poetry and literature in general. In my research, I’ve been particularly drawn to writers who push the limits of language(s) or rely on multiple forms of enunciation to express their relationship to language(s) and the space(s) to which they’re connected, and which usually has a political element to it. This is why my interests in literature began with the most “radical” forms — the historical avant-gardes and modernists (Kafka, Djuna Barnes, Faulkner, Joyce, Woolf), as well as the Language poets in the U.S.
I never really distinguished poetry and prose and have never been interested in genres as categories (which doesn’t mean they don’t exist; these are just not the questions that are the most interesting to me). For me, it’s a matter of doing something with language.
Translation is directly connected to this idea, as it is a practice that by definition brings something into existence, but translation for me is also a process working from within a language. It can be part of a poetic gesture; it can be found within a word choice, or can leave merely a trace, a hint of elsewhere, which is what I often find among the writers that interest me the most. Personally, I find it impossible to write in only one language, as translation is always there – the back and forth movement is part of my identity and therefore part of my writing.
Carrie: It’s a humongous question, Marissa, but still such a worthy place to attempt response. My journey into the world of language has been a process, a long and ongoing one, of understanding my linguistic inheritance — all those weird underpinnings that made up my expression at home in the U.S. Southeast and then within the larger context of “universal,” or what I really think of as colonial, English — and then looking for ways to disinherit or revolutionize the grammar of my thoughts so that I might chance a realer articulation of self or future self. At the same time, I have often been pulled, contrastingly, towards preservation, towards a wish to keep some lineage intact, to be sure I could still feed off the oxytocin of origin.
Recently, I’ve been thinking about, in my own creative work, the trauma that is incurred by a person when she comes to share, as sincerely as she can muster, a truth of herself and is met with denial or ambivalence. It breeds estrangement within the self, and all I really understand is that I believe this might have happened to me as a very young person and that I have gone on to breed estrangement in some of my life choices. Even as much as I’ve been looking for real embrace. I understood at some point that “home” — my South in particular — was not a place where I was or would be accepted. And that translated into a number of places but very really what became my writing life.
Poetry has always seemed to me like a beautiful foreign country, a place where customs are turned on their heads, where the unrequited is given ample room and the hope of audience, where dreams are suddenly documented. I believe that if you are writing anything that you call a poem, that you are writing from a place of estrangement, from a place where you have felt your thought or vision was disadvantaged by the current stakes of reality. And so you write to contextualize yourself, which is in a sense giving yourself a new country. I have needed poetry for this above all else, I think.
The act of translating poetry feels to me like another way to be a good citizen to the estranged out there, and it is also a great experiment with a “tool for emancipation,” as Amanda said of language. In seeking the English expression for Sandra’s poems, we’ve had to interrogate responsibility in English and in literature, which is a terrifying but fascinating space to enter in regards both to communal and personal conversations around creation.
FWR: As Americans who have spent years building lives in France, has immersion into the world of French literature altered the way you look at the writing of your homeland? In the same ways in which many people trace the lineage of aspects of contemporary American poetry to writers like, say, Dickinson or Whitman, what do you feel is present (—whether being hearkened to or pushed against—) of the foreparents of French poetry in contemporary writers? In Moussempès specifically? How do you feel having access to modes of expression outside of the Anglophone influences the ways in which you view, understand, and imagine literature more largely?
Amanda: In my case, foreign language, or a certain foreignized relationship to English was what drew me into literature. I have been particularly interested in the incapacity to feel at home in one’s own language and to the potential mechanisms of exclusion or oppression contained within languages that function in different ways depending on the language and its historicity. Sandra, I believe, writes with the presence of a community of women poets, contemporary and past, who have also suffered from exclusion or oppression (Plath is a very important figure for her, I know). She draws attention to the difference between being (or identifying) as a woman and the expectations society has had, and still has, for women, including in language – how to speak, how to respond, what you can and can’t say.
Carrie: Yes, building a life in France, which absolutely meant for me building a stronger relationship with contemporary French literature, has changed the way I look at the writing of my homeland. Firstly, my move here, as probably many who’ve made similar choices to uproot from homeland might attest to, pronounced for me very clearly my nativeness, which began to feel a lot like an almost impolite level of naïveté, to my homecountry. Even the American-ness I knew I was trying not to perform almost compulsively emerged from me. My whole sense of self-worth had to be reappraised, because I no longer held in French society the obvious markers of anything except my biographical information. If I considered myself having had any “success” in the United States, well, nobody here had ever heard of a lot of my stuff, especially an MFA. But what this meant, painful as some of it was, was that I could kind of reappraise the hold America had on me. I still write myself a lot about my South, I’m still fixated in so many ways on looking back, over, under, etc., but I’m also now more freely accepting that my homeland shouldn’t need to take up so much space, in my relative sense of how much I matter and in a global sense of how much it matters to other lands.
As far as what I feel might be in revolution in French literature, I think a lot and not enough, all at the same time. Institutionally, what we have as an example with Sandra’s book, which is released by a major press (Flammarion) in France, is a reminder that here poetry is recognized as a living artform, but I don’t think you see these major presses supporting, mostly through PR and events, their poets in the same way they do their prose writers. And I guess the French public isn’t either. Which means that poetry in France remains, for better or for worse, niche.
For me, this “nichitude” goes back to the earliest moments of education around poetry. French children are still required in school to learn certain poems, mostly themed around the seasons or school supplies, by rote memorization and perform them for their teacher and classmates. These poems have heavy rhyme scheme and meter, and are, I believe, meant to promote a certain formality around pronunciation and elocution. While I was initially charmed by this practice, I’ve learned that the poem, the poet, poetry as an expression, are given small parameter. The poem stays fixed in the classroom as exercise. After that, by the time of the final graduation exam, French youth are expected to have evolved and asked to be more literate in literary technique and prosody but as applied to a limited canon of white male poets — Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Char, Hugo, Ponge, Queneau, Rimbaud, Valéry, etc. And this is, I guess, what many French people here leave their education with, that poetry has been written, that it has intellectual properties and even “a message,” but that it is stowed in the past, in the hands of these men, these practically mythological names, that people around the world include when they refer to “French Literature.”
So, I have some difficulty tracing all that contemporary French poets are pushing against. It is practically everything. Every rigid exclusion of diversity, every dictation of poetry as something that must have strict formal structure. And it’s pretty challenging to go through historic or contemporary European artistic and social movements and find parallels in poetry publishing because it seems the French taste for poetry has been greatly reduced by this rigidity. French women in this tradition are very underrepresented, as are people of color. We have some cultural nodding around names like Andrée Chedid or Suzanne Césaire (though we usually hear more about her husband), and if we go back further, some might recognize Marie de France, Louse Labé, or Anna de Noailles. People still get excited by the Oulipo movement, and it did touch poetry in France. Yet, I have my doubts about whether it really expanded any conversations around who gets the preservation of publication, the reissuing, etc. Only six women were “inducted” into its club-like structure and few of them have been translated. Hélène Besette, who was not a member but who was first published by Queneau, is one of my absolute favorite French poets. She was enormously inventive with her “roman poétique,” but she was practically excommunicated from the scene because she wasn’t an “easy personality.” It’s taken several small presses to resuscitate a readership for her, and I have heard that she will finally have English translation in the coming years.
I think the French poets writing today are working towards more radicalism, both on the level of the line and articulating identity, than some of the celebrated men of French poetry tradition ever dared. Sandra Moussempès certainly is. And she is doing so in the purest promise to an artist’s life, and she’s doing it well and often. This is her 11th published collection. This time, finally, garnering attention from the French Academy. It’s a big deal, even if receiving an award wasn’t going to dictate her future artistic production. Where is she taking her inspiration? I’m not always sure. Certainly, she’s looked to the U.S. She could be drawing, as are others, from what has been long and powerful social discourse in France on feminism. Today’s “wave” is absolutely more intersectional and is strongholding with feminist and queer writing collectives. And what’s powerful in that right now is that independent presses and young people are showing up for it and are feeling more and more empowered to turn back to their institutions and say, actually, I think this, over here, is really good literature. I’m very inspired by my French contemporaries who are dismantling the “preciousness” of literary forebearer so as to expand what art can do. It is amazing radical love.
FWR: When I first read through the Moussempès translations that you sent, one of many qualities that I was drawn to was the formal expansion and contraction, almost tidal, in her work, and the way in which it seemed to mold with how the theme of female embodiment ran across these poems. There are several poems that feature very long, almost breathless lines; others are incredibly spare. How do you see form, in this sense or others that strike you, operating throughout Cassandra at Point Blank Range? As translators, were there any tricky formal, rhythmic, or verbal decisions you had to make to bring Moussempès’ verse to life as you had understood it?
Amanda: The formal expansion and contraction in her work is definitely an interesting element. It’s what gives a certain rhythm to the whole book. For me, it’s necessary to consider rhythm and form on various scales: the line, the page, the poem, the collection, the book. There is definitely an importance given to changing shape, perhaps to the plasticity of women’s bodies and to women’s ability to adapt, with all the implications that can have. When translating Cassandre, we definitely had some moments where we were unsure of the need for a line break or a page break, and even on some occasions had differing opinions as to whether or not a poem ended before or after a page-break. Generally speaking, we tried to protect the rhythms found in the original, but as her poetry is also quite prose-like, we had to find a compromise between the semantic unit and the sounds and visual elements.
Carrie: I agree so much with your descriptor of “tidal” Marissa and with Amanda’s identification of Sandra’s expansion and contraction of form mimicking “the plasticity of women’s bodies and […] women’s ability to adapt.” I think of this collection as a series of short films strung together. Sandra’s work is so cinematic to me and because we find it all on the page with sound and image bites patched in here and there, we also have the sense of the fleeting, the ghostly, a staging but of a kind of absenteeism. I do see Sandra’s work as keenly interested in exhausting the reader’s ability to locate, as a way of forcing us to accept the speaker or the author almost as medium, bringing in messages from another consciousness. Like Amanda said, we had to work through a lot of questions. In some cases, we were looking at where to build cohesiveness with certain word choices, so as to engage “readability,” but then, we worried to what degree we were projecting a certain narrative-wish for the poems. I do think we decided early on that as far as translation would go, we would, in as many cases as it was possible, aim to maintain a semblance of the original rhythm of the text so that that “tidal” quality, which feels very Moussempèsian, remained.
FWR: Was there anything in Moussempès’ work that you found particularly challenging to translate? Do you feel that the act of translating these poems gave you access to anything that you might not have had were you simply reading them?
Amanda: Poetry always relies on a degree of ambiguity and meaning can be located on so many different levels, so yes, in Cassandre à bout portant, we definitely had moments where Carrie and I didn’t necessarily come up with the same understanding or feeling about a word or a line that was particularly unique. Line breaks were often a challenge due to the ambiguity of meaning they can create depending on if you read through them or stop. Sandra’s forms and use of punctuation is not always consistent, voluntarily probably, so it is sometimes hard to come up with any kind of method or rule for translating.
Reading is the first step in translation, and reading definitely determines translation to some extent; however, there is something extra in the gesture of translating that can feel empowering, depending on the text, and on the translator’s relationship to it and to the languages involved. There were a few poems, especially the ones about writing and women in language, that gave me a really great feeling to translate, the feeling of enacting, in a sense, what the poem was originally trying to say or do.
Carrie: Yes, I think Sandra’s poetics, which for me include a certain disbelief in traditional grammar practices, were probably the most challenging for me. For example, a misplaced modifier in French is misplaced still, but it can, within the rhythm of the language and the order of preceding words, be felt in a particular way. It was delicate to try to replicate that purposeful misplacement in English phrasing. We couldn’t always achieve it.
I also think the repeated references to U.S. culture through cinematic, literary, and brand mention represented an intriguing moment in the consideration of how these poems would transpose. When the speaker in “Non-identified feminine objects” mentions Beverly Hills, Santa Monica, chewing gum and corn flakes, we had very little translating to do, of course, but I do think we considered what was intact in Sandra’s French and in our reading of her poems, which is a kind of mystique in importing another culture and language (and honestly time) into her work, that we just can’t deliver in leveling it all into English, and our American English at that.
FWR: Translation can also be seen as a kind of editorial curation. It’s a process of decision-making—out of all of the books I come across on a regular basis, this is the one that has moved me irreparably, that I believe can touch others in far corners of the earth. What does it mean to you to think of not only the artistry, but also the responsibility, of literary translation? In earlier eras of your lives, as burgeoning young lovers of language and literature, what translated works were most formative to you and what you believed writing could be?
Amanda: There is no doubt that translation is determinant for literary culture and canons. The existence, non-existence, or delayed existence of translations has shaped our ideas of what literature is or isn’t, what it can or can’t do, and what it can or can’t say. Translating in itself is an occasion to reify or modify those beliefs and I have always admired translators’ initiatives to make something happen through translation, to bring about an event in language, even if it may be highly personal or concern, at first, only the translator’s relationship to the languages at hand. I can’t say I grew up reading with an awareness of translation. When I became interested in translation studies several years ago here in France, I came to the conclusion that a lot of the translations I had read at school in the United States, for example, had not even been presented to me as translations. There is a real problem with the dominance of the English language and the lack of interest in foreign languages in the United States in certain milieux, and that’s part of the reason why when I translate, especially into English, I adopt at times a foreignizing strategy, leaving traces of something that might remind readers that they are reading a translation. I believe that is essential to a responsible experience of reading in translation.
Carrie: Well, I guess I referenced some of these ideas a bit before, not knowing this question was coming! I do, though, see responsibility in literary translation as a very real concern. I have greatly enjoyed learning from Amanda’s research in translation and felt swift community with those she introduced me to who believe in maintaining some of the original’s grammatical structures, even if there might be something more economical in English, so as to honor the anatomy of the author’s lyric. A part of what attracts me to translation is what has also made me a poet, which is a wish to devote my whole self to the choice of words, to each word. I think of this practice as one that is fully artistic and fully responsible. I don’t know if I’ve ever disassociated the words when I‘ve thought of the social/political/artistic act that is presenting work to an audience.
In high school, I remember having a very powerful reading experience with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. However, much like in Amanda’s story, I don’t remember being presented with this book, which I think must have been assigned reading for one of my classes, as a translation. (The same is true when I think of how little was said about how Sophocles’ Antigone or The Diary of Anne Frank came to our American English classrooms.) But if I recall well the kind of strange font choices and paper grade of the cover of my copy of Crime and Punishment, it was one of those cheaply marketed versions of “great literature” that you could find in the front aisles of Barnes and Noble. Certainly, I felt in reading it that I was being pulled into a different culture — the character names were difficult for me to pronounce even in my head, the small food references were obviously “other” to my parents’ homecooking, and the old religion didn’t feel anything like my then American Protestantism. I loved the series of weeks I spent in that book, yet didn’t spend much time interrogating how I was sitting in my carport in Alabama with this text. It was still several years before I would be taught, and then actually grow interested in, the front and back matter of books. But because of these occlusions and the sometimes clinical way novels were taught to me, I don’t think I had any inkling that “literature” was something that I could write, that translation was something that I could do.
FWR: What does it mean to you to translate from a foreign language that you are also both currently living within? What are the ways in which you feel it smoothens the process or ways in which you find it complicates it? I remember, when I first moved back to America from France, how often the French word for something would come to me in conversation before the English word (even now, four years on, my brain can never manage to find me the English equivalents for terms like parcours or régulariser). Do you find your minds blurring the borders of the language it feels most “at home” in, and if so, how does that affect you as not just translators, but as writers yourselves?
Amanda: I think translators, by the nature of their work, always live to some extent in a gray zone. Like anyone who speaks more than one language, they are constantly swinging back-and-forth from one space to another and develop a particular attention to language, which is also that of the poet, in the broadest terms of the word. Through my academic work and own writing (and living), I have realized that these spaces are never étanches; they are never neatly delineated and writing, like translating, is a matter of allowing for newness, maybe even a language of one’s own, to emerge out of the friction between the languages we use, but never fully possess. Even after living in France for 16 years, doing a PhD here, and claiming to be close to bilingual, there have still been words and expressions in Moussempès’ poems that escape me and create an element of surprise. In those cases, I often experience a desire to elucidate but fight against it so as not to flatten the foreignness or strangeness (étrang(èr)eté) in English. That’s where it’s nice to have two translators so that we can compare our respective histories with the French and the English languages.
Carrie: I often return to something Maryse Condé says in the beautiful documentary on her life, “Maryse Condé: A Voice of Her Own” : “The language I write in is neither French nor Creole. As I have often said, it’s a language of my own. I write in Maryse Condé.” When I first watched this film in 2016, as a student in the DUEF department at Sorbonne Nouvelle University, Paris 3, I rejoiced. I was in love. Condé’s determination to claim a spot for herself, in all we can think of as self, in the world of literature, despite different worlds demanding something of her to be more distinctly Guadeloupean or more distinctly French, was so illuminating for me. As a poet, I had often felt like some readers had wanted me to shirk certain aspects of my expression that felt so distinctly me to me. I think Condé, who now lives, and has for years, in New York, embraces in ways I want to, in ways I want so many writers to, the particularities of a linguistic relationship to the world. The way one feels and wields and receives language is one of the most personal and intimate spaces I can imagine. It is a sensuality. And I think “living in French” as a native English speaker has offered me new sensual dimensions in the expression of self and reality. Of course, I experience complications. Like you Marissa, certain English words “go missing” on me. It seems my brain has almost permanently deleted a referent for what might be an English equivalent for “préciser,” but I don’t know if I could say that anything about living in France burdens the process of translation from French into English. The process itself, no. Perhaps a question about publication, being farther away from the English presses that might want to release a translation, is a different order of question. Yet, I think it actually makes a lot of sense to be within the culture from which you are translating some of its works. At the same time, of course, this could never be a requirement, but for me, living in France and working on Sandra’s book has afforded me a collaboration with Amanda and also regular contact with the poet herself. I feel extremely lucky to be local in this way, to have the constant stimulation of French in my daily life. All of this leads me back to what I wanted in moving here, which was a kind of solidification or amplification of the linguistic plurality I already felt in me.
Mónica Gomery is a rabbi and a poet based in Philadelphia. Chosen for the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry, judged by Kwame Dawes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Hilda Raz, her second collection, Might Kindred (University of Nebraska Press, 2022) skillfully interrogates God, queer storytelling, ancestral influences, and more.
FWR: Would you tell us about the book’s journey from the time it won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize to when it was published? In what ways did the manuscript change?
MG: The manuscript didn’t change too much from submission to publication, though it changed a lot as I worked on it in the years prior to submitting it. Kwame Dawes is a very caring editor, and he really gave the poems space to breathe. His edits largely came in the form of questions. They were more about testing to see if I had thought through all of my decisions, guiding me toward consistency. The copy editing at the end was surprisingly tough. I realized how sculptural poetry is for me, how obsessive I am about the shape of poems on the page, and the visual elements of punctuation and lineation. I spent hours making decisions about individual commas – putting them in, taking them out, putting them back in… This was where I felt the finality of the book as an object. I experience a poem almost as a geological phenomenon, a shifting ground that responds to tectonic movement beneath it, a live landscape that moves between liquid and solid. Finalizing the details of these poems meant freezing them into form, and it was hard to let go of their otherwise perpetual malleability.
The last poem to enter the book came really late. I wrote “Because It Is Elul” in the summer of 2021. Right at the last possible moment, I sent Kwame two or three new poems that I was excited about and asked if he thought I could add them. He told me to pick one new poem and add it to the book, and otherwise, to take it easy – that these new poems were for the next collection, and to believe that there would be a next collection. That was a moment of deeply skilled mentorship; his ability to transmit a trust and assurance that this wouldn’t be the end, that we’re always writing toward the next project, the next iteration of who we’re becoming as artists. It meant a lot to hear this from such an incredible and prolific writer. It settled me and helped me feel the book could be complete.
FWR: When did you first start submitting Might Kindred to publishers and contests? I would love to hear about your relationship with rejection and any strategies you may have for navigating it in your writing life.
MG: I started writing the poems in Might Kindred in 2017 and began submitting the manuscript as a whole in 2021. I’m a slow drafter, and it’ll take me years to complete a poem. So too for a manuscript – the process feels extremely messy while I’m in it, but I’ve learned that what’s needed is time, and the willingness to go back to the work and try again. With my first round of rejections, I wondered if I’d compost the entire manuscript and turn to something to new, or if I’d go back in and refine it again. The rejections rolled in, but along with them came just enough encouragement to keep me going – kind reflections from editors, being a finalist multiple times – and then Kwame Dawes called to tell me Might Kindred was accepted by Prairie Schooner for the Raz/Shumaker Prize.
On my better days, I think rejection is not just an inevitable part of the creative process, but a necessary one. Which isn’t to say that I always handle rejection with equanimity. But it has a way of pulling me back to the work with new precision. It generates a desire in me to keep listening to the poem, to learn more about the poem. In some ways, this is the only thing that makes me feel I can submit in the first place – the knowledge that if a poem isn’t quite ready, it’ll come through in the process. It’ll boomerang back for another round of revision. Rejection removes the pressure to be certain that a poem is done.
Jay Deshpande once told me that every morning, a poet wakes up and asks themselves: Am I real? Is what I’m doing real? And that no matter the poet’s accomplishments, the charge behind the question doesn’t change. So, we have to cultivate a relationship to our practice as writers that’s outside of external sources of permission or validation. Jay offered that the poet’s life is a slow, gradual commitment to building relationships with readers – which I understood as an invitation to pace myself and remember to see the long arc of a writing life, as opposed to any singular moment in time that defines one’s “success” as a writer. I try to remember this when I come up against my own urgency to be recognized, or my tenderness around rejection. I want to write for the long haul, so, I have to try and value each small bright moment along the way. Every time I find out that someone who I don’t already know has read one of my poems, my mind is completely blown. Those are the moments when poetry is doing its thing– building community between strangers, reaching across space and time to connect us. And I think that’s what makes us real as poets.
FWR: In “Immigrant Elegy for Avila,” you refer to mountain as a language. You return to the imagery in “God Queers The Mountain”. Would you talk a little about how the mountain came to be a part of your creative life?
MG: Some of it is memory work. As a child, my relationship to Venezuela, when I reach for it in my mind’s eye, had to do with feeling very small in the presence of things that were very large– driving through the valley of El Ávila to get to my grandparents’ houses, swimming in enormous oceans. Since this book reaches back toward those childhood memories, and wonders about being a person from multiple homelands, the mountain started showing up as a recurring presence. The mountain was a teacher, imparting certain truths to me by speaking to me “in a mountain language” that I received, but couldn’t fully translate. This is what it feels like, to me, to be a child of immigrants–– all this transmission of untranslatable material.
Some of it is also collective memory, or mythic memory work. The mountain in “God Queers the Mountain” is Sinai, where the Jewish people received Torah and our covenant with God. That poem seeks to reclaim Mt. Sinai as a site of queer divinity and queer revelation. Similarly, this feels like an experienced truth that’s not easily rendered into English.
On the cover of Might Kindred is a painting by Rithika Merchant, depicting a person’s silhouette with a natural scene inside of them. The scene crests on a hilltop and overlooks the peak of a mountain, painted right there at the heart of the mind. The mountain in the painting is against a thick night sky, full of constellations and a red harvest moon. I can’t tell you how true this painting feels to me. Going back to Mt Sinai for a moment, in Torah it’s the meeting point between earth and heaven, where the divine-human encounter happens. It’s a liminal, transitional space, where each realm can touch the other, and it’s where the people receive their relationship to the divine through language, mediated by text. I love the claim, made by Merchant’s painting, that this meeting point between earth and sky, human and heavenly, however we want to think about, lives within each of our bodies. The possibility of earth touching heaven, and heaven touching earth, these are longings that appear in the collection, played out through language, played out at the peak of the mountain.
FWR: I love that “Prologue” is the eighth poem in the collection. Some poets may have chosen to open the collection with this poem, grounding the reader’s experience with this imagery. What drove your choice of placement? How do you generally go about ordering your poems?
MG: You’re the first person to ask me this, Urvashi, and I always wondered if someone would! Ordering a collection both plagues and delights me. I’m doing it again now, trying to put new poems into an early phase of a manuscript. Lately I’m struggling because every poem feels like it should be the first poem, and the placement of a poem can itself be a volta, moving the book in a new direction. The first handful of poems, maybe the first section, are like a seed– all the charged potential of the book distilled and packed tightly within those opening pages, waiting to be watered and sunned, to bloom and unfold. There’s a lot of world-building that happens at the beginning of a poetry collection, and one of the rules in the world of Might Kindred is the non-linearity of time. By making “Prologue” the eighth poem, I was hoping to set some rules for how time works in the book, and to acknowledge the way a book, like a person, begins again and again.
At one point, I had Might Kindred very neatly divided by subject: a section on Venezuela, a section on Queerness, a section rooted in American cities, a section about my body, etc. I shared it with my friend Sasha Warner-Berry, whose brilliance always makes my books better. She told me, “The poems are good, but the ordering is terrible.” Bless her! I really needed that. Then she said, “You think you need to find subject-based throughlines between your poems, to justify the collection, but the throughline is you. Trust the reader to feel and understand that.” It was a mic drop. I went back to the drawing board, and ordering became an intuitive process: sound-based, sense-based, like composing a musical playlist.
I want to think about the space a reader inhabits at the end of each poem. I want to feel and listen into that silence, tension, or question, and then respond to it, expand upon it, or juxtapose it, with what comes next. I also used some concrete tools. I printed each poem out as a half-pager, so that it was tiny and easy to move around on a floor or wall. I marked and color-coded each poem with core motifs, images, and recurring themes. This helped me pull poems together that spoke to one another, and also to spread out and braid the themes. Similarly, I printed out a table of contents, and annotated it, to have that experience of categorizing poems from a birds-eye-view.
FWR: There are four poems, scattered throughout the book, titled “When My Sister Visits”. These short poems are some of the most elusive and haunting poems in the text. Would you tell us about the journey of writing these linked poems?
MG: These poems began after a visit I’d had with my friend and mentor, Aurora Levins-Morales. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and I was living in Chicago, where I didn’t have a lot of close people around me. Aurora came to town, and we did what we always do– sit and talk. On this visit, she also showed me around her childhood neighborhood in Chicago, including the house she’d lived in as a teenager, and the streets she’d walked as a young feminist, activist, and poet. It was a very nourishing visit, and afterward when I sat down to write, the first words that came to me were, “When my sister visits…” This was interesting because Aurora isn’t my sister. She’s my elder, teacher, and friend, so I knew something about the word sister was working in a different way for me, almost as a verb. What does it mean to be sistered by someone or something? This question came up recently in a reading I did with Raena Shirali. Beforehand, we both noticed the recurring presence of sisters in one another’s books, and we deliciously confessed to each other over a pre-reading drink that neither one of us has a biological sister. The word sister has a charge to it, I think especially for women.
At first, I wrote one long poem, excavating the presence of a shadow sister in my life who appears to accompany me and reflect parts of myself back to me, especially parts of me that I think shouldn’t be seen or given voice to. This sister embodies my contradictions, she asks hard questions. I was drawn to writing about her, somehow through that visit with Aurora, in which I felt that I belonged with someone, but that the belonging was fraught, or pointed me back to my own fraughtness.
This poem was published in Ninth Letter in the winter of 2020, under the title “Visit,” and I thought it was finished! Later, I worked with Shira Erlichman on revising the poems that became Might Kindred. Shira invited me to return to seemingly completed poems and crack them open in new ways. Shira’s amazing at encouraging writers to stay surprised. It’s very humbling and generative to work with her. So, I chopped the original sister poem up into smaller poems and kept writing new ones… Shira advised me to write fifty! This gave me the freedom to approach them as vignettes, which feels truer to my experience of this sister in my life– she comes and goes, shows up when she wants to. She’s a border-crosser and a traverser of continents, she speaks in enigma and gets under my skin, into my clothes and hair. Bringing her into the book as a character felt more accurate when this poem became a series of smaller poems, each one almost a puzzle or a riddle.
FWR: Ancestors, especially grandmothers, have a powerful presence in these poems. What did you discover in the course of writing these poems? What made you return to these characters over and over?
MG: In Hebrew, the words av and em mean father and mother, and also originator, ancestor, author, teacher. The word for “relation” is a constellation of relationships, which expands the way we might think about our origins. This helps me find an inherent queerness at work in the language of family– how many different ways we may be ancestored by others. And at the core of their etymology, both words mean to embrace, to press, to join. I love this image of what an ancestor is: one who embraces us, envelopes or surrounds us, those whose presences are pressed up against us. We are composite selves, and I think I’m often reaching for the trace of those pressed up against me in my writing.
Might Kindred is driven by a longing for connection. Because the book is an exploration of belonging, and the complexity of belonging in my own life, ancestors play a vital role. There are ancestral relationships in the book that help the speaker anchor into who she is and who and what she belongs to, and there are ancestral relationships in the book that are sites of silence, uncertainty, and mystery, which unmoor and complicate the possibility to belong.
Also, belonging is a shifting terrain. I wrote Might Kindred while my grandmother was turning 98, 99, then 100, then 101. In those years, I was coming to accept that I would eventually have to grieve her. I think there was an anticipatory grieving I started to do through the poems in this book. My grandmother was the last of her generation in my family, she was the keeper of memories and languages, the bridge from continent to continent, the many homes we’ve migrated between. Writing the book was a way of saying goodbye to her and to the worlds she held open for me. There are many things I say in the pages of Might Kindred, addressed to my grandmother, that I couldn’t say to her in life. I wasn’t able to come out to her while she was alive, and in some ways the book is my love letter to her. The queerness, the devotion, the longing for integration, the scenes from her past, our shared past, the way it’s all woven together… maybe it’s a way of saying: I am of you, and the obstacles the world put between us don’t get the final word.
Lastly, I’ll just say, there are so many ways to write toward our ancestors. For me, there’s a tenderness, a reverence, and an intimacy that some of these poems take on, but there’s also tension and resistance. Some of the poems in the book are grappling with the legacies of assimilation to whiteness that have shaped my family across multiple journeys of immigration – from Eastern Europe to Latin America, from Latin America to the US. I harbor anger, shame, heartbreak, disappointment, confusion, and curiosity about these legacies, and poetry has been a place where I can make inquiries into that whole cocktail, where I can ask my ancestors questions, talk back to them, assert my hopes for a different future.
FWR: Three of your newer poems appear in Issue 25 of Four Way Review and I am intrigued by the ways in which there’s been this palpable evolution since Might Kindred. Is that how you see it too, that you’re writing from a slightly different place, in a slightly altered register?
MG: Yes, I do think there’s a shift in register, though I’d love to hear more about it from your perspective! I know something of what’s going on with my new writing, but I’m also too telescoped into it to really see what’s really happening.
I can definitely feel that the first poem, “Consider the Womb,” is in a different register. It’s less narrative, equally personal but differently positioned, it’s exploring the way a poem can make an argument, which has a more formal tone, and is newer terrain for me. It uses borrowed texts, research and quotations as a lens or screen through which to ask questions. I’m interested in weaving my influences onto the page more transparently as I write new poems. This poem is also more dreamlike, born from the surreal. It’s holding questions about the body, generativity, gender roles and tradition, blood, birth and death, the choice to parent or not. I think the poem is trying to balance vulnerability with distance, the deeply personal with the slightly detached. Something about that balance is allowing me to explore these topics right now.
The other two poems take on major life milestones: grieving a loss and getting married. I’m thinking of some notes I have from a workshop taught by Ilya Kaminsky – “the role of poetry is to name things as if for the first time.” Loss and marriage… people have been writing poems about them for thousands of years! But metabolizing these experiences through poetry gives me the chance to render them new, to push the language through my own strange, personal, subjective funnel. Kaminsky again: “The project of empire is the normative. The project of poetry is the non- normative.” There are so many normative ways to tell these stories. Ways to think about marriage and death that do nothing to push against empire. I think my intention with these two poems was not to take language for granted as I put them onto the page.
FWR: Is there a writing prompt or exercise that you find yourself returning to? What is a prompt you would offer to other poets?
MG: I once learned from listening to David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers about a writing exercise Brandon Shimoda leads when teaching, and it’s stayed with me as a favorite prompt. He would have his class generate 30 to 50 questions they wanted to ask their ancestors, and go around sharing them aloud, one question at a time, “Until it felt like the table was spinning, buoyed by the energy of each question, and the accumulation of all the questions.”
As you pointed out, writing with, toward, and even through, my ancestors, is a theme of Might Kindred, and I think it’s one of the alchemical transformations of time and space that poetry makes possible. I love Shimoda’s process of listing questions to ancestors, which feels both like a writing exercise and a ritual. It draws out the writer’s individual voice, and also conjures the presence of other voices in the room.
I’ve used this exercise when teaching, credited to Shimoda, and have added a second round– which I don’t know if he’d endorse, so I want to be clear that it’s my addition to his process– which is to go around again, students generating a second list of questions, in response to, “What questions do your ancestors have for you?” I’m interested in both speaking to our ancestors and hearing them speak to us, especially mediated through questions, which can so beautifully account for those unfillable gaps we encounter when we try to communicate with the dead.
In Might Kindred, there’s a poem called “Letter to Myself from My Great Grandmother” that was born from this kind of process. It’s in my ancestor’s voice, and she’s asking questions to me, her descendent. My book shared a pub day with Franny Choi’s The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, which I think is an astonishing collection. In it, she has a poem called “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter.” In the poem she’s made herself the ancestor, and she’s receiving a letter, not from the past but from the future, questions addressed to her by her future descendent. I’m in awe of this poem. She models how ancestor writing can engage both the future and the past, and locate us in different positions– as descendent, ancestor, as source or recipient of questions. The poem contains so many powerful renderings and observations of the world we live in now– systems, patterns, failings, attempts. She could have articulated all of these in a poem speaking from the present moment, in her own present voice. But by positioning her writing voice in the future, she creates new possibilities, and as a reader, I’m able to reflect on the present moment differently. I feel new of kinds of clarity, compassion, and heartbreak, reading toward myself from the future.
These are the questions I return to, that I’d offer other writers: Think of an ancestor. What’s one question you have for them? What’s one question they have for you? Start listing, and keep going until you hit fifteen, thirty, or fifty. Once you have a list, circle one question, and let it be the starting point for a poem. Or, grab five, then fill in two lines of new text between each one. Just write with your questions in whatever way you feel called to.
FWR: Who are some of your artistic influences at the moment? In what ways are they shaping your creative thoughts and energy?
MG: Right now, I’m feeling nourished by writers who explore the porous borders between faith and poetry, and whose spiritual or religious traditions are woven through their writing in content and form. Edmond Jabés is a beacon, for the way he gave himself permission to play with ancient texts, to reconstruct them and drop new voices into old forms – his Book of Questions is one I return to again and again. I love how he almost sneaks his way back into the Jewish canon, as though his poems were pseudepigraphic, as though he’s claiming his 20th century imagined rabbis are actually excavated from somewhere around the second or third centuries of Jewish antiquity. I’ll never stop learning from his work.
Other writers along these lines who are inspiring me right now include Leila Chatti, Alicia Ostriker, Alicia Jo Rabins, Dujie Tahat, Eve Grubin, and Mohja Khaf. Kaveh Akbar, both for his own poems and for his editorial work on The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. Joy Ladin, whose writing is a guidelight for me. Rilke, for his relentless attempts to seek the unlanguageable divine with the instrument of language. I’m trying to write on the continuum between ancient inherited texts and contemporary poetry. These writers seem to live and create along that continuum.
I’m also reading Leora Fridman’s new collection of essays, Static Palace, and Raena Shirali’s new book of poems, Summonings. Both books merge the lyrical with the rigor of research; both are books that return me to questions of precision, transparency, and a politicized interrogation of the self through writing. On a different note, I’m thinking a lot these days about how to open up “mothering,” as a verb, to the multitude of ways one might caretake, tend, create, and teach in the world. As I do that, I return to the poems of Ada Limón, Marie Howe, and Ama Codjoe. And lastly, I’m trading work-in-progress with my friends and writing siblings. On a good day, it’s their language echoing around in my head. Right now, this includes Rage Hezekiah, Sally Badawi, emet ezell, and Tessa Micaela, among others. This is the biggest gift – the language of my beloveds doing its work on me.
Karisma Price is a poet, screenwriter, and media artist. Her work has appeared in Oxford American, Poetry, Four Way Review, wildness, Adroit Journal, and elsewhere. She is a Cave Canem Fellow, was a finalist for the 2019 Manchester Poetry Prize, and was awarded the 2020 J. Howard and Barbara M. J. Wood Prize from the Poetry Foundation. She is from New Orleans, Louisiana, and holds an MFA in poetry from New York University. She is currently an assistant professor of poetry at Tulane University. Her debut poetry collection, I’m Always so Serious, is out now from Sarabande Books.
FWR: There’s so much that I found remarkable about I’m Always So Serious, but I think one of the very first things I was awed by was the interplay between the natural and the surreal, and perhaps more specifically, the way in which the idea of transformation is operating–like with the marigolds that overtake a New Orleans mansion in the very first “I’m Always So Serious” poem. Especially given that this first section deals so closely with the event and legacy of Hurricane Katrina, how do you see poetic metamorphoses functioning in these poems, or what particular sorts of revelations do they allow for?
Karisma Price: Let me start off by saying thank you for these wonderful questions and I’m glad to be speaking with you. “Poetic Metamorphoses” is such a great phrase. I think these poems allow me to do the type of meditating on the page that I can’t always do in real life. Throughout the collection–but especially in the “Serious” poems–I wanted some of them to have a dream-like quality, because that’s what my anxiety feels like. As a neurodivergent person, my anxiety and OCD are such big parts of my life and affect how I navigate through the world. With my anxiety and certain compulsions, there’s always that “what if” aspect that tends to be a negative thought, and I know those feelings are directly-linked to and complicated by experiencing a disaster at such a young age. The revelation I had came not necessarily after writing the poems, but from talking to people who read them. I remember talking to a colleague who read an ARC of the book and telling him how I think family and music are two of the big themes in the book (which they are), but it wasn’t until we talked about growing up in New Orleans that I realized how much “hurricane anxiety” is just as prevalent.
FWR: Who were some of your major influences on this book, literary or otherwise?
KP: Oh, there are so many! Maybe too many to name. This collection is a very revised version of my thesis that I completed as an MFA student at NYU, so much of the inspiration came from the creative work I was exposed to in my classes. But, if we’re being specific about influential poets, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Jericho Brown, Natasha Trethewey, and Terrance Hayes are the poets I tend to think of as the close relatives on my poetic family tree. Definitely my kin. I love the way they write about family, Blackness, and landscape (both physical and emotional landscape). The last three poets in the list are also Black southerners. As a southern writer, I’m glad that they meditate on what home and the south mean to them. There are so many stereotypes about the South, and it’s very disheartening when non-southerners have a flat view of us and our history. I learned about these three poets when I was still a high schooler in Louisiana, who had no idea that you could major in poetry or that MFA programs existed. My English teacher taught us their work because they were from the South, they were ours. Brown is from Shreveport, Louisiana, Trethewey spent her childhood in both Mississippi and Louisiana, and Hayes (who became my thesis advisor) is from South Carolina but lived and taught in New Orleans for some time.
As made apparent in the book, music is also a big influence on my writing–particularly R&B and the blues. As poets, we have to be good listeners, and rhythm and storytelling is ingrained in our profession. I grew up listening to old school music (my parents controlled the radio in the car), so music also gives me that nostalgia. My memories are connected to certain songs and because poetry is such a meditative thing to me, it is helpful to understand which life experiences have brought me to this point in my life. Also, if you follow old Motown and soul drama, those songs are confessions! You’ll learn which singers were doing things that they had no business doing. There’s a similar (albeit not as scandalous) confessional aspect of poetry that allows the reader to learn about the writer, no matter if what they’re saying is “autobiographical” or not.
Movies and television are also big influences on me. I write scripts and studied creative writing in college (I also took several cinema and screenwriting classes in the film department), so storytelling and writing with visuals in mind is very important to me. It’s probably why I write a lot of narrative poems. Since editing my poetry collection, I’ve been reading more fiction and learned that I really like sci-fi and dystopian media, and I’ve started writing speculative short stories. With speculative fiction, there is an escape from the confines of our reality, but at the heart of it, the characters, no matter how flawed or human or robotic they are, they’re doing what they think is necessary and often it’s a critique of our current society and the social norms we have in place.
And, as always, spending time with my family and being in New Orleans are major influences.
FWR: What was the process of putting this book together like for you? What informed the collection’s structure? In the back matter, you mention that it took six years to complete. How does I’m Always So Serious as it now exists differ from how your imagination first seeded the manuscript those years ago? Did some poems or sections flow from you more or less easily or than others?
KP: The ordering of the collection changed several times from when it was a thesis draft, but I also had other poems that I started writing while I was still in undergrad (only two of those have survived. That is a good thing. Trust me). In early drafts, the “family” poems were much more scattered throughout the collection and even the book had a different name. Ultimately, I split the book into three sections to move the reader from an individual to a collective Black history. Throughout the collection I meditate on kinship that isn’t limited to blood relation. The first section is really family heavy and aims to establish the speaker’s background and origin. The second section is very music heavy and uses figures in media and history to further analyze kinship, and gives the reader a broader view of Blackness, history, and pop culture. The third section, hopefully, feels like a mixture of sections 1 & 2 and reunites the reader with the speaker from section 1 but is not limited to one voice.
The collection now exists with more experimental forms and fewer persona poems. I’ve always been a big fan of persona and when I first began writing poems, those were the only ones that I felt comfortable sharing with my undergraduate classmates. It felt weird to have people know things about me, but I’ve since gotten over that. I think the persona poems that I left in the collection are the strongest. After I took classes on learning form (and how to break them), experimentation with the page became something I loved to do, because I think there’s an endless number of ways for a poem to “be.” I never want to stop being playful.
FWR: The title of the book is also the title of several poems within the book, generally beginning each section. What inspired you to have “I’m Always So Serious” as a refrain, and how do you see the meaning of those words informing, illuminating, and/or evolving throughout the collection?
KP: So that series started out as me writing only one poem with that title, because people always tell me that I have a serious resting face. I don’t like to think so, but apparently some people believe that, so I decided to be very playful and mock that idea. It’s funny, because a lot of my friends who I told that story to and who read my work think I’m a very calm and funny person (you know, outside of the anxiety). The original poem that started this series did not make it into the collection, because I think it was the weakest out of all of them, but I also think its purpose was to try to figure out how to write a “serious” poem. The first “Serious” poem in the collection was the second one I had ever written and I brought it to a graduate workshop class. That poem was also much shorter than what it is now. Terrance Hayes (my workshop teacher/thesis advisor) asked me during the workshop why I was cutting myself off in that poem. An earlier draft had much shorter sentences and he encouraged me to use very long run-on sentences (I love a good run-on sentence) and just say what I needed to say. He also asked why I felt the need to try to say everything in just one poem. That made me start writing multiple poems on why I’m Always So Serious (cue joke rimshot sound effect). I definitely had more to say, so I ended up writing a lot of them. Overall, I feel that the strongest and the more creative ones made it into the collection.
Because the poems have the same title, I see the repetition of the phrase “I’m Always so Serious” change from moments of well, seriousness, to whimsical, observant, self-reflective, and pointing a finger at the reader. Repetition forces someone to look at the same word again and again and give it new meaning. I hope it makes the reader think about all of the reasons why a person needs to make such a declaration, but also, I hope it makes them think about all the times that they’ve needed to say something they felt was urgent.
FWR: To refer to the book as a “love song” to New Orleans–and Black New Orleans, specifically–would oversimplify what is in fact a profoundly nuanced relationship with the city. In a book so tied to questions of chance, fate, and injustice, how does New Orleans behave as not just a locus, but as a soul all its own? Do you feel like the process of writing this book in any way changed your relationship to New Orleans?
KP: Love has its nuances, so it wouldn’t be an oversimplification to call it a “love song” to New Orleans. One of the things that was really important to me when writing this book was to make New Orleans a speaker as well, and not just a city or an object being projected on. I think writing this book made me so much more protective of my city. I was already before I wrote the book, but the process of revising the book and returning home made me think about how much it takes to survive here. I love New Orleans for what it is but also know that we deserve so much more. There’s a term called “Katrina Kids” that describes a lot of young children who experienced the hurricane in their formative years, and I definitely view life and my memories from a pre and post-Katrina lens. The culture has definitely changed. There is so much more gentrification, and it is getting very hard to live here. I want this book to show a reader–whether they’re from New Orleans or not–an honest and deeply rooted representation that is not clouded by only thinking of what the city can do for you in terms of pleasure and entertainment, but what it really means to live here and how you need to sow resources back in to the city as well. It definitely made me think much more about climate change and how a lot of cultural bearers and their livelihoods need to be protected.
FWR: And related to the soul of New Orleans, the way these poems hold and cherish Blackness, and the emotional intricacy of these poems more largely: how do you see the blues behaving as a sort of emulsifier across the book’s arc, as that which has always been uniquely capable of holding both the love that’s in sorrow and the sorrow that’s in love?
KP: I think you’ve said it right there. I feel like life is a blues song. As humans, we hold both love and sorrow in one body, and those feelings often sit with each other, holding hands. The blues is very reflective and meditative, just like poetry is for me, and I really love moments in songs when an artist does an extra run, or pronounces a certain word a certain way when singing, or when a trumpet or a saxophone gets a solo. You can elicit love and sorrow in the blues by the way a singer makes a sound, and not simply just the sound itself, if you know what I mean. I hope the presence of The Blues can be seen as a speaker guiding you through all of these lived experiences with their hand held firmly into yours telling you, this is going to be a ride. But it’ll be okay because I’m right here next to you.
FWR: On the note of the blues–let’s talk about that astonishing middle section and the poems about the legendary pianist James Booker. How did you first encounter Booker, and what called you to place his story at your book’s heart?
KP: James Booker is one of my favorite artists and a New Orleans legend. I learned about him after watching the documentary “The Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius of James Booker” by Lily Keber and then listened to many of his songs. In undergrad, I took a class on writing “The Diva” and what that word means. That’s when I decided to start writing persona poems about him and his life. He was described by Dr. John as “the best Black, gay, one-eyed junkie piano genius New Orleans has ever produced.” He has his own lore surrounding him and how he lost his left eye. He was larger than life, wore capes and costumes on stage, and called himself “The Black Liberace.” James Booker, to me, represents a piece of New Orleans that has always been here: complex, mythological, talented, and Black; however, despite all his talent, he was failed by a lot of people. He was a gay Black man in the South, growing up in the 1950s-60s. He struggled with drug addiction and mental illness and after the deaths of his mother and sister, he never completely recovered emotionally. He adored them and he always said his sister was the better musician out of the two of them.
Even the circumstances surrounding his death are somewhat unknown. He was dropped off at Charity Hospital in New Orleans but no one knows who brought him there or what was the cause of that emergency. He unfortunately died in the waiting room. I’d honestly like to write many, many more poems that highlight the genius and complexity of his life. He seemed like such a talented, yet troubled human who left this world too soon. There was something divine about him and I truly think he was able to tap into that divineness when his fingers hit the keys. I wrote this in the notes section of my book as well, but in an interview, Booker said, ‘…music is actually a divine product. So, whatever song I sing—I don’t care what the message is—it’s a product of my imagination and my imagination is the result of divine imagination.”
FWR: I’m fascinated by the way form is functioning throughout this book–how the beginning tends toward primarily more traditional forms, but with time we’re brought into collapse, collision, disjunction, and even highly visual poems in the style of Douglas Kearney. What brought you to the forms we find here, and what unique liberties did you feel that some of these forms allowed or roused for you?
KP: Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to experiment with a lot of different poetic forms, because I don’t think a poem should exist only as a piece that’s lineated to the left. I also don’t want to bore myself because I know that means I’m probably boring the reader too. Just like anything else, poetry evolves and changes, and I feel that there are so many styles that can’t be confined to a page and some that have yet to be played with/invented. Because poems have an emotional truth to them–meaning there is a separation of the speaker from the writer, and not everything written down is exactly how things happened in real life–the truth should have room to be free. I often don’t know what form a poem is going to take until after I’ve started drafting it. I start all my poems by hand in a notebook and then bring them to the computer after I start scratching things out and drawing arrows everywhere. I noticed that when I’m drafting poems, I tend to use couplets as a default form–no shade to couplets. I love them–but it’s only after I have a solid draft that the poem begins telling me how it should look.
FWR: What poem or poems from this book would you say you were initially the most terrified or resistant to write, and why? Which, if different one(s), did the finishing feel the most fulfilling or necessary?
KP: I will keep that a secret =). The readers can guess.
FWR: These poems are about many things, but grief is certainly high on that list. How do you see the act of creation in relation to that? Do you see writing, for example, as a mode of processing, an act of transformation, a balm, a record-keeping, or something else entirely? What do you feel like your poems are able to reveal about the possibilities of art for writer and reader alike?
KP: I definitely see it as an act of processing. I feel that I am much more articulate on the page than in person, and allowing myself to write or type something means that I am relying on the body, and the body relies on the muscles, and the muscles rely on the fingers and the brain and so on and so forth. I hold on to a lot of things–a little too much for a little too long–and I view poems as a place where I can sit those feelings down and allow myself to explore thoughts without fear of judgment from others. I’m not looking for another’s response or validation. I get to check in with myself.
FWR: Bonus question: What might be a question that I didn’t ask, but that you wish that I had–and what’s your answer to it?
KP: If poets got to guest star in an episode of one of their favorite shows, which show would it be and who would you play?
I’d guest star in an episode of Abbott Elementary and play a visiting teaching artist who hosts a schoolwide poetry contest. Janine would, in an effort to help, accidentally destroy all the submissions, and the two of us would go around having the students complete the largest exquisite corpse poem (it’s not as scary as it sounds, non-poets), and then declare them all winners.
Stella Lei is a writer from Pennsylvania and an Editor–in–Chief for The Augment Review. Rhythmic and resonant, her debut prose chapbook, Inheritances of Hunger (River Glass Books, 2022), is a vivid, thrilling collection featuring five stories punctuated by cruelty and intimacy as she interrogates generational hurt through the rawness of hunger and girlhood.
Emily Judkins/Four Way Review: Inheritances of Hunger’s themes of family, specifically mother-daughter relationships, shine throughout this collection, but I particularly love how you embody these themes by exploring hunger’s origins, as well as its consequences. Where did the image of hunger come from while you were writing? Did you find your intention in targeting hunger in its various forms a sustained investigation?
Stella Lei: Thank you so much for asking. When I was writing this [chapbook], I actually came up with the idea of putting these stories together because I had written “Games” and “Changeling,” independently of each other, in a row. Maybe coincidentally. Maybe not. After writing those two stories that focus on hunger and on cruelty and on familial relationships back to back, I noticed a lot of commonalities between them thematically, tonally, and imagery wise. I wanted to dig deeper into why I was so preoccupied with these themes and images and how I might want to continue investigating them. So, after I drafted “Changeling” and started noticing those common threads, I wrote a few bullet points for myself about how I was using hunger in both stories and the role that hunger plays in both stories, both as a physical sensation and as a motif, and the different ways in which these characters interact with their hunger (actively and passively). In that development process, this hunger became a literalization of or an embodiment of hurt and cruelty, asking if these experiences and emotions are inheritable, including the yearning that comes with hunger. I was thinking about how to convey generational hurt and generational violence in an embodied way.
FWR: I definitely felt all those threads being interwoven together. I think the core of the chapbook is so strong that when you experimented within the stories, the main themes remained cohesive and tangible . Once you found this core, how did you then draw upon and tie together these traditions, experiences, previous writings, and other inspirations to fully flesh it out so it could go in so many different directions?
SL: Once I figured out that I wanted to use hunger as a central metaphor/motif throughout this chapbook, I wrote down a lot of different ideas for different directions in which this hunger could go. I tried to approach these ideas of abuse and of generational violence and of complicated families in slightly different ways. For example, in “Graftings,” the familial structures get complicated because we have this mother who is very neglectful and the sister, in turn, has to take the place of the mother, versus how in “On Building a Nest,” the mother has trapped the daughter in this flawed ideology as a way of keeping the daughter dependent on her. These different dynamics play out across similar themes. As for inspirations from other sources, “Changeling” was very much directly inspired by Ren Hong’s photography, and from there I started looking into more contemporary Chinese photography. There’s a certain atmosphere to those works that I really love and that became sort of central to how I developed the atmosphere of the chapbook, even if it might not be explicitly related.
FWR: Yeah, totally! The atmosphere throughout the chapbook is so stellar and well defined. I think part of that is thanks to how you have so many different details, as well as the intuition of knowing when to pull back on them. I’m thinking about the two characters in “Games” and how their relationship isn’t really defined — they don’t even have names — yet they feel incredibly real and I personally found them recontextualized while reading more of Inheritances. I had inferred that the characters were sisters based on the other strong sister relationships in the chapbook and how these relationships can be obscured due to trauma and familial situations, such as in “Graftings” where, as you were saying, Elaine takes on this maternal role for Charity due to neglect. Could you talk about how you know when to pull back on details and obscure certain characterizations to allow more possibilities?
SL: One thing I tried to do in writing and finding the balance between details and obscurity is letting these characters and their relationships speak for themselves, rather than putting down hard definitions for who these people are and how they have shaped each other. By letting their actions and subtext speak for itself through the selection of specific details, I tried to demonstrate how the cruelty or the hurt or the mutual yearning of these relationships play off of each other and let the reader derive a context from that, especially in “Games.” Like you said, these girls are not named and their relationships are not defined, but there is a very palpable intimacy in that story and intimacy within the violence of what they’re doing and in their own hurt. I think that [intimacy] gives you an on ramp into the other familial relationships in the chapbook and how these stories work together in a community: they provide context and support specific details, while letting the individual relationships speak for themselves, rather than defining them very strictly on the page.
FWR: I love the idea of these stories working within a community, because, since so much of the chapbook is about generational trauma and familial hurt, it’s almost as if these stories became a supportive community for each other.
Focusing on the details and tones throughout the chapbook, I love how you utilize the idiosyncrasies of the characters and settings to really make them come alive. Still talking about “Games,” the two girls are playing knife games as “crabgrass chokes [their] feet” in their backyard, which is a “minefield of wounds” — I immediately understood from what was happening and how it was described that this game is not just about play. In the second anecdote of this story, these individuals weigh themselves “against the heft of morning as it dragged itself above the hills.” We are immediately thrust into the world and logic of the narrator, underscored by self-destruction and disordered eating. Each word feels so deliberate as you construct and connect the internal and external elements of the environments of the story. Since you find such accurate actions and use subtext so effectively, what’s your process in developing and/or collecting these details, and how do you ensure they all fit together?
SL: One idea that I always come back to is this concept of having an “ecosystem of language.” I did not come up with this term, but an ecosystem of language is where all the language throughout the story has a consistency in it regarding tone, image — kind of like how an image system might work. When I pick the metaphors that I use, I draw upon this ecosystem of language or image system to make this language like a figurative minefield, or figuratively like choking. Choosing to describe them in this way provides a lot of additional subtext that further frames what is literally going on in the scene.
A similar idea that I come back to when writing figurative language is what Ocean Vuong has said about metaphors and about sensory connectors and logical connectors. It is not enough that the tenor of your metaphor is physically similar or similar in a way that you can notice in your senses to the vehicle of the metaphor. There also has to be a logical connector to the specific qualities of the vehicle that become imposed upon the tenor and that adds nuance. I’m asking the implications of and the impact of describing the crab grass as choking their feet, versus caressing their feet. Caressing their feet is a terrible, terrible phrase, but just asking what is impacted by choosing that phrase over the other, what added nuance does that add, and how does that help shape atmosphere and subtext, and so on.
FWR: I love the term “ecosystems of language”, especially in reference to this collection — your strong, cohesive language really does feel like entering an immersive environment. It also reminds me of this recurring image of the knife throughout the chapbook and how poignant that image is, given the sharpness of your language. Bringing up “Changeling” again, both the chopped fragments in your writing and the cuts between sections made each part bite sized and satisfying on its own, yet each section added a new dimension to the narrative. As we move through time and discover more about Jennifer, Jessica, and their mother, and what they are living/have lived through, certain elements linger longer than others, both in terms of literal variance of length, as well as metaphorical resonance. When you were working on this piece, and on other pieces where you use this narrative structure, how did you establish this? Did you intend this choppier style to coincide with themes of familial hurt and relationships and hunger, or is this just a style that you gravitate towards?
SL: I think this style definitely lends itself to these themes of strained familial relationships and this sharp feeling throughout the chapbook. I am a big fan of the form of a work fitting the function of it.
When I am writing a story, I’m very interested in the negative space both surrounding the story and punctuating the story’s scenes: what is not being said in between these scenes and around these scenes, and how what is not being said or that “negative space” shapes our understanding of the “positive space,” or what is being said in the story. I try to be very intentional in picking certain scenes to show and make sure that these scenes have an exigence and a clear purpose. I often ask myself, “Why am I showing this scene? Why am I showing it right now? How does this develop the characters or move the plot forward?” I try to render the most focal moments or most impactful moments on the page. This often leaves a lot to be inferred in the negative space or in what is not being said, especially in stories like “Graftings,” where I have to cover a long chronology in a relatively short space.
FWR: I was really impressed by how much, chronologically speaking, you were able to fit into “Graftings” and how you were using this double lens of an unreliable narrator with Elaine and Charity, as described in CRAFT. I felt like I was alongside Charity as she was trying to understand her life, both from her perspective and from Elaine’s stories, and account for things in her life.
SL: Regarding the previous question, I also think it’s just really cool how you can have so much happen in the subtext, even in the scenes that jump between years. There’s so much that happens in between those two scenes that the reader can infer, based on where the characters are from one scene to the next, such as how things have changed or stayed the same. In that way, the reading almost becomes a collaborative process between the writer and the reader where the reader also has to do that work to uncover subtext and infer context and so on and so forth.
FWR: I think that collaboration particularly shines in “Meals for the End of the World,” where you’re using this very cool list format, encouraging the reader to make connections and collaborate with the work to make these lyrical jumps. How do you approach something that is more list-like and poetic, which may require the audience to make more leaps in logic?
SL: In my head, when I was conceptualizing this chapbook, it is a chapbook of prose, with some flash fiction and microfiction. Then when I sent it out to readers, people told me, “I really like this hybrid collection where you have stories and a prose poem and a list poem,” and I was like “Oh! That’s really interesting! I didn’t think about it before, but yeah it does function like that.” So the line between prose and poetry can be blurry in that sense.
Talking about the writing process of “Meals for the End of the World” itself, when I was selecting items for this list, I wanted there to be momentum and urgency in between the lines or from one line to the next, even if it isn’t explicitly articulated, to push you through the list and continue reading. Rather than making it feel like it’s just setting a bunch of items side by side, I wanted there to be some kind of escalation. I also wanted to pick images that felt urgent in that way, which are very vivid and very visceral as one way to push that escalation. Another thing I tried to do for this specific list story/poem is I wanted each line or each item in the list to “inherit” a word from the previous item in the list and preferably use it in a different way to really underscore the idea of inheritance through form and language. I actually messed up a little bit, but that’s okay, I’m just going to embrace that mistake.
FWR: Definitely! I think ending this piece with “Now I can swallow for two” with the final list item specifically encapsulates this theme of inheritance and working through generational hurt. This last line doesn’t just receive language; it also captures the feelings and experiences from the different stories and characters,ultimately choosing to release the hunger and hurt with the end of the collection. I thought it was beautiful.
I would love to talk a little more about this hybridization. I’ve been reading some of your poetry, both published by Four Way Review and other magazines and presses, and one thing I love is how even when you are not working in specifically prose, there’s often this clear sense of character and narrative. Similarly, I love how this prose collection had such beautiful and visceral poetic language. As you mentioned, there’s this wonderful element that blurs your work to feel like poetry and prose at the same time. Do you have a way to decipher what pieces will become poems and what will become fiction? Do you have any influences or guides to help you return to see what a piece will become? Or do you just kind of let it come out as it is, and go from there?
SL: I would say it’s mostly a gut feeling determining whether or not something will be a poem, piece of flash fiction, short story or a novel. Usually I will get an idea and I will almost immediately know which form I think it should be. There have been cases where I thought a piece would be one thing and turned out to be another, but most of the time I know in the moment. I ask myself, “What is the scope of this idea? How broad are the themes that I want to explore here? How many characters are involved? How in-depth do I have to go into their relationships and into their background? Do I have to create a whole world for this story, or can I focus in on one specific moment, or a short series of moments?”
FWR: Beyond hunger, I’ve also noticed this thread of apocalypse in your work — within Inheritances of Hunger, I’m thinking about “Changeling,” as well as “Meals for the End of the World,” but also in your poem “Prospective Final Girl Sits at the Gas Station” from Honey Literary, and I was wondering if you could speak to the appeal of writing about the end of the world and/or why you continue to return to it.
SL: I’m so glad you noticed this; I am definitely very interested in the apocalypse and I have been writing more apocalypse poems lately. I actually have an apocalypse poem forthcoming in Frontier Poetry. It kind of feels like a natural extension from my previous focus on hunger in this chapbook. I think the appeal for me on writing about the apocalypse is partially because the world does kind of feel like it’s ending, but it is less that and more that I feel like trauma often feels like a personal apocalypse. Some of the things that I went through when I was younger and that still shape who I am today felt like a personal apocalypse in that my own world was kind of ending. In more recent writing, I’ve been focusing on what comes after the apocalypse and thinking about and acknowledging the grief or the hurt of the past and wondering what to do with myself moving forward. In the apocalypse poem that I have forthcoming in Frontier, I was thinking about the appeal of losing that past and starting anew, but then the speaker decides to accept their place in the apocalypse in making a turn for preservation. Even if only for themselves, it’s like saying, “It’s okay, and maybe it’s even good if no one else knows this origin story or nobody else knows this trauma (ie. like the apocalypse).” The speaker is forcing themselves to understand what made them this way, and making the active choice to accept this and move beyond this on a personal level.
FWR: Thank you for talking about that. I’m very excited to read the poem when it comes out! I’m really interested in that premise as well as trying to navigate trauma. I’m wondering, how do you negotiate writing about what you are carrying while protecting both yourself, both in terms of self-care and safety?
SL: I’m so glad you asked this question because this is a question I ask myself and for me, well in fiction writing, I can just take these themes and these ideas and impose them on the characters and now it’s a story, right? In poetry, the line becomes a little blurrier. I think a lot about the separation of the speaker from the self and how, for me, my speakers are often a facet of myself, oftentimes put into a hypothetical situation, or put into figurative situations that did not literally happen to me. They are still an aspect of myself, and asking myself how I would react to XYZ situation is part of how I craft my speakers.
In a lot of the poetry that I write that addresses these ideas that are personal to me and that I don’t want to disclose to other people who aren’t very close to me, I will abstract these ideas and discuss them in figurative ways, or in hypothetical situations. I try to be very careful in the metaphors that I pick, or in these figurations that I create, where I can still talk about these themes and these ideas and emotions without disclosing real lived events.
FWR: That’s a really well-thought out way of approaching subject matter like this. You’re almost building in defense mechanisms and safety precautions to go about this kind of work. As a young and up-and-coming writer, how do you balance writing and everything else going on in your life right now, such as with school, family, friends, jobs, etc.? Have you found any writing “rituals” or practices other than these negotiations to be helpful?
SL: That balance is definitely hard. I will be very honest in saying that I haven’t been writing nearly as much this year as I did last year, just because of family and school and jobs. I’ve been working a lot this summer. I tutor in creative writing, so I’m surrounded by writing craft all the time. When I want a break from that, that oftentimes means not writing, which is not usually what I want. One writing ritual that I am trying to adopt and is helpful when I do actually engage in it is to just write for half an hour every day. It doesn’t have to be really anything, but just forcing myself to write for that half an hour and seeing where it gets me is better than just not writing at all. It seems intuitive, but for some reason it’s just not something that I was doing for the past few months. It’s just setting that timer and writing for half an hour and seeing where that gets me.
FWR: 100%. I often find that when you haven’t been writing, this sense of guilt from not writing starts building, and I know I can find myself in loops of self-doubt. I think a big part of getting into a consistent writing practice is learning to treat yourself with a bit more compassion and forgive yourself for not having the time. The skills are all still there, and you will be able to tap into them soon, even if it’s ten or thirty minutes — you’re still moving forward, and I think that’s really important to remember.
SL: 100% exactly that.
FWR: I know that we were talking briefly before about some different project you have coming up, as well as this thread of apocalypse in your work. Can you tell us anything about those projects? Will you be returning to any of these themes from Inheritances of Hunger?
SL: The whole thing about the apocalypse is interesting because I have enough work about the apocalypse that it is a noticeable trend, so I am thinking about maybe putting that into some type of poetry chapbook or some small scale project like that. It’s not very clearly defined yet, but that is something that is on the table.
The two big projects that I am supposed to be working on are two novels. When Cicadas Sing for the Dead is a surrealist family saga across two generations. It’s about ghosts that are both metaphorical and literal, the American dream, the past recurring into the present, and how these ideas kind of unravel in this family and in the surrealist or fabulous things that happen to them. I see a lot of times that people will say that a writer’s first novel is always kind of autobiographical, which I think is probably true for me. Even though I am not living the exact life that I am describing in this novel, it does partially take place in Pennsylvania, which is the state that I’ve been living in for the past 18 years. The character’s family is from the same region of China as my family. Beyond those superficial similarities, it addresses a lot of themes and ideas that I have been ruminating on for the past few years, including in [Inheritances], so this novel almost feels like a natural extension of this chapbook.
After that, the second novel that I’m working on is less directly tied to my personal life. It’s a lot less fleshed out, but there’s a dead girl in a pool and there’s a lot of summertime imagery. I really want to make this novel experimental form-wise and I wanted to introduce things like fake newspaper clippings or diagrams and things like that. I’ve been thinking a lot about playing around with aspects of form and oral tradition and stories within stories. One of the major thematic focuses is on archive and the fragility of paper and cultural memory, and also how real people can become mythologized through a very specific process of remembering. Then, in turn, the people surrounding this myth can interact with it and reject their place in it or try to enter it from the periphery, and then cover more about it. That’s a lot of abstractions, but those are kind of the ideas that I’m thinking about for this project. I’m really excited to work more on it.
FWR: I’m really excited for both of these projects! I’m definitely going to be checking them out once they’re in their final form.
As we wrap up, what do you want your reader to take away from Inheritances of Hunger? Is there one major overarching question or idea that is crucial to leave with?
SL: I always have so much trouble answering this question because I’m not sure if there’s any singular thing. The thing I think that makes me the most satisfied and most like I’ve done a good job is in the response to the chapbook — when somebody messages me and says, “I had familial issues and I dealt with XYZ and I really connected to this chapbook,” those people are my ideal audience, right? The fact that my themes and ideas came through so clearly to them means that I have done what I needed to do and done what I intended to do with this chapbook, and connected with who I really wanted to connect with.
Stella Lei was interviewed by Emily Judkins for Four Way Review. Emily Judkins is a queer writer and artist studying English and Film and Media Studies at Smith College. Their writing has received the Ruth Forbes Eliot Prize and has appeared in Emulate, Voices and Visions, and the Worcester Art Museum. You can reach them on Instagram @ee.jay_
Forthcoming from Farrar, Straus and Giroux this fall is the long-awaited collection of poetry by Iman Mersal, translated by Robyn Creswell, titled The Threshold. The author of five books of poems, Mersal is a highly acclaimed Egyptian poet and writer, currently based in Canada, where she teaches Arabic language and literature at the University of Alberta. Her collaboration with Robyn Creswell began when he became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, with an enthusiasm for publishing more Arab poets. In addition to The Paris Review, Creswell’s translations of Mersal’s poems have appeared in The New York Review of Books, The Arkansas International, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and elsewhere. To accompany three featured poems by Iman Mersal this September, Four Way Review poetry editor Sara Elkamel spoke with translator Robyn Creswell about The Threshold.
SARA ELKAMEL: Congratulations on your forthcoming collection of Iman Mersal’s poetry in translation, The Threshold (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2022)! It gathers poems from four of Iman’s collections: A dark alley suitable for dance lessons (1995), Walking as long as possible (1997), Alternative geography (2006), and Until I give up the idea of home (2013). Can you tell us a little bit about the process you went through, together with Iman, to get this collection together? How did you go about selecting the poems?
ROBYN CRESWELL: Iman is a poet of sensibility: she has an immediate, idiosyncratic presence on the page. Her voice—really a congeries of voices—is unforgettable once it gets in your ear. But it’s also a sensibility that develops in large part by looking back on prior performances: reading Iman’s work in chronological order, you have this feeling of astonishing self-sufficiency—her voice expands, matures, and addresses itself to different topics, but the transformations result from self-reflection.
When we chose the poems of The Threshold—and we discussed the table of contents endlessly, because it was fun to arrange and rearrange the poems—I think we wanted to make sure the distinctiveness of Iman’s voice came through, but also its dramatic evolution. So the poems are arranged roughly in the order they were first published, although we also made sure that short and long poems alternate, and the variety of voices is on full display.
SE: You’ve been working with Iman for several years now (I remember reading your gorgeous translation of “The Idea of Houses” in The Nation in 2015). Can you tell us how you first started translating her poetry, and how your evolving collaboration has in turn manifested in the translations?
RC: When I became poetry editor of The Paris Review in 2010, one of my aims was to publish a larger chorus of Arab poets in the magazine. At the time, I think the only poet writing in Arabic who had been published in the Review was Mahmoud Darwish. An Egyptian friend of mine, Waiel Ashry, suggested that I read Iman. At the time, I had what I now recognize as a schoolboyish appreciation of modern Arabic poetry: I mostly read the classics (Darwish, Adonis, Nizar Qabbani, Badr Shakir al-Sayyab), and was suitably awed. Reading Iman was like encountering a contemporary: here was someone who was, I felt, writing the present (to borrow a phrase of Elias Khoury).
I wrote to Iman asking if she might be willing to share some current work with me and among the poems she sent was “A Celebration.” I love that poem—the way it begins with a figure of speech, then literalizes it (“The thread of the story fell to the ground, so I went down on my hands and knees to hunt for it”). Then the juxtaposed scenes of an encounter on a train with an Afghan woman and a patriotic rally in Cairo. The relation between the two episodes, one intimate, the other collective, is never spelled out—it has something to do with the experience of speaking words in a “foreign” language—but the idea of putting them together is what makes the poem characteristic of Iman.
After that first poem we began working on others, until the idea of a book became more or less inescapable. Working with Iman—we’ve worked very closely—has been a pleasure and a privilege. She has a knack for seeing where my English versions aren’t quite right (I’m abashed now to look at some of my first drafts), but she never imposed her own solutions. I’ve learned more from her about Arabic poetry—how it works, its range of tones, its levels of diction—than any other teacher. I’ve been very lucky.
SE: You’ve previously referred to Iman Mersal’s voice as having a “sinuous, rough-edged music” that can be challenging to translate. I also find that irony and wry humor permeate Iman’s poems, which I imagine would be difficult to always carry across into English. Do you remember any particular challenges with translating any of the three poems featured in FWR?
RC: English can do wryness, but Arabic verse has musical possibilities that I don’t think contemporary poetry in English can really capture. Because written Arabic is a literary language—it isn’t spoken except in formal situations—it’s possible to be grandly symphonic or virtuosically lyrical in a way that’s hard to imagine in English. You’d have to be a Tennyson to match the musical effects in Darwish’s late poetry, for example. But of course trying to be Tennysonian would be fatal.
With Iman the difficulty for an English translator is different, and I would say more manageable. In a poem about her father, she wonders whether he might have disliked her “unmusical poems.” I don’t think they’re actually unmusical (I don’t think Iman does either), but their rhythms and cadences and sounds have a lot in common with the spoken language. She writes in fusha, sometimes called “standard” Arabic, but her style shares many features of the vernacular: she doesn’t use ten-dollar words, her syntax is typically straightforward, economy is a virtue. She also uses tonal effects—sarcasm, for example—that we tend to associate with speech.
We talked a lot about “A grave I’m about to dig.” I’m still not sure Iman likes my choice of “diagonal” for the Arabic ma’ilan, to describe the way a bird falling out of the sky might appear to an observer on the ground (but that’s how I think of Iman: she sees things at a slant). The last phrase of the poem, “were it not for the sneakers on my feet” is a typical moment of self-deprecation, a comedy of casualness. There are no feet in the Arabic original, however, which just says “were it not for my sneakers” (or, more literally, “my sports shoes”). I thought adding the phrase “on my feet” was needed, both for musical reasons and because it suggests a pun that isn’t available in Arabic, where verse meters aren’t called feet. For me, Iman’s (musical, metrical) feet really do wear sneakers: they’re quick and agile, casual but spiffy. They’re what we wear today.
SE: Iman’s poems typically take on different forms as well as registers–at times indulging in the lyric, and at times sacrificing it for the sake of a more restrained, almost academic language. She recently told me that she believes poems don’t have “forms” as much as “personalities.” Do you find you have to “get to know” a poem of hers before you approach a translation? If so, what does that process look like?
RC: I think translation is the process—or a process—of getting to know a poem. My first versions tend to be awkward, formal, overly reliant on obvious equivalents (something like the French faux amis). That isn’t so different from the way one talks with a new acquaintance: conventions can be useful. It’s only later, and gradually, that you begin to see what makes the poem—if it’s a good poem—worth spending time with.
SE: Finally, can you tell us a little bit about the choice of title for your forthcoming collection, The Threshold?
RC: “The threshold,” in Arabic al-‘ataba, is an important motif in several of Iman’s poems. It names a site of risk, guilt, transformation. It’s also the title of a long poem that comes at the midpoint of the collection. To my mind, this is Iman’s farewell to the era of her youth. It’s a valedictory poem about Cairo in the nineties, full of Europeanizing elites, posturing poets, and entitled State intellectuals. It’s a poem of the open road that also tells the story of a generation: Iman and her friends wend their way from the Opera House in Zamalek, Cairo’s poshest neighborhood, to the ministry buildings and bars of downtown, through the streets of Old Cairo, and out into the City of the Dead—a burial ground that’s also a point of departure.
Robyn Creswell teaches Comparative Literature at Yale University and is a consulting editor for poetry at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. He is the author of City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut, and a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books.
In 2021, Four Way Review partnered with several other journals and presses to establish the Bootleg Reading Series. It was a partnership we hoped would continue to grow beyond the reading series and lift up the projects of each partner. We’re excited to share this conversation with some of the poets of the new Queer Nature anthology, published by Bootleg partner Autumn House Press, in conversation with one another and the ideas of “queer nature”.
“Queer Nature is a groundbreaking anthology of more than 200 LGBTQIA+ poets writing about nature. Left out of the canon but with much to say, these writers peculiarize bodies into landscapes, lament the world we are destroying, and sing of darkness and love, especially along the beach. If nature is a monocrop, no single aesthetic, attitude or voice defines these poems from three centuries of American poetry.”
Michael Walsh, editor of Queer Nature, is a 2022 Lambda Gay Poetry Finalist. He received his BA in English from Knox College and his MFA in Creative and Professional Writing from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities.
FWR: Which queer poets have inspired you? Which queer poems? If any are pastoral, do you notice anything new about them in the context of queer nature?
“You know, I have a lot of embarrassment about being pretty under informed about poetic movements or styles. I studied English and creative writing, but thought more about individual poems. This is just to say I’m not certain I understand what the pastoral is, but I do love a lot of poems that figure and transfigure the natural world. I think of poems like “Tiara” by Mark Doty, which puts drag queens next to lush water, next to death and sex.”
Eric Tran earned his MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and is the author of Mouth, Sugar, and Smoke (2022), forthcoming from Diode Editions in the spring, and The Gutter Spread Guide to Prayer (2020), from Autumn House Press. He is also an Associate Editor for Orison Books and a resident physician in psychiatry at the Mountain Area Health Education Center.
“I consider poets like Elizabeth Bishop and Audre Lorde to be major influences in my development as a poet. I was introduced to both poets in college and graduate school. My first attempts to write about my own queer experience were influenced by “The Shampoo” by Bishop, in which the simple act of washing her lover’s hair inspires an image of shooting stars, suggesting to my young mind that love between two women is such a revelation that it compels images of heaven. The movement toward metaphor in this poem was indicative of the deep nature of a sexual relationship between two women. I experienced the same sense of revelation in Lorde’s “Love Poem” where intimacy pushes the speaker toward seeing her lover’s body as a forest and her own entry into it as the wind, as she opens widely to “swing out over the earth over and over again.” As an imagistic writer, I struggled to write about sex in an overt way; however, the metaphor invites great possibilities for writing about intimacy between women.
“Neither of these poems is pastoral; however, you ask an interesting question in the context of environmental poetry. Much of the nature poetry being written today is a movement away from pastoral writing. There is too much that stands in the way of the effort to ‘touch’ God through one’s experience of nature—abuses of the land, water, and air, not to mention our current focus on the power of place where the land itself has connection to indigenous peoples and histories that far more important to acknowledge, at least in my mind.”
Amber Flora Thomas earned her MFA at Washington University in St. Louis and is the author of Red Channel in the Rupture (2018) from Red Hen Press, The Rabbits Could Sing (2012) from the University of Alaska Press, and the Eye of Water (2005) from the University of Pittsburgh Press, which won the 2004 Cave Canem Poetry Prize. She is also the recipient of the Richard Peterson Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize from Rosebud magazine, and the Ann Stanford Poetry Prize.
“My poetry would not exist without the poems of [Constantine] Cavafy; his dreamy stagings of sex and history are always close to me; his frankness and the undramatic way his poems unfold have taught me so much about managing energy in short lyrics. James Merrill was the first poet I loved unreasonably. Henri Cole and Carl Phillips are two poets of my parents’ generation whose work has been indispensable to me from the beginning. They are both represented with brilliant poems in the Queer Nature anthology—both poems in some way about the way we look to the natural world to teach us about ourselves, our desires, and how the natural world always complies and refuses us at the same time.”
Richie Hofmann is the author of A Hundred Lovers (2022) from Alfred A. Knopf, and Second Empire (2015), from Alice James Books. He received his MFA at John Hopkins University and is a Jones Lecturer in poetry at Stanford University.
“The queer poets and academics whose work has been foundational in critiquing Western constructions of Nature (and thus The Human) in my work are Sylvia Wynter, Katherine McKittrick’s Demonic Grounds, Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s Becoming Human, Gloria Anzaldua, Dionne Brand’s A Map to the Door of No Return, Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem, Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval, Jake Skeets’ Eyes Bottle-Dark and a Mounthful of Flowers, and Natalie Diaz’ Postcolonial Love Poem.
“These works reveal how the “Nature” of the Western imagination is an inherently colonial concept. “Nature” conceived as terra nullius, or empty “virgin” land, by using the very word, invents the land as an unpeopled, undisturbed habitat outside of time, removed from the urban, and evacuated of Blackness, indigeneity, and queerness. National parks—“America’s Best Idea”—are racialized spaces defined by the absence of race, and serve to dehistoricize the land from its indigenous history and frame conservation as a value rooted in rugged individualism and self-sufficiency. In the construct of “nature,” indigenous people are confined to prehistory—if nature is prehistoric, then what we do to it does not affect our future. In the Western imagination, “Nature” is separate from us, just as the body is separate from the mind, and becomes an object—a place to go, a thing to be experienced, a resource to extract from—rather than a living being surrounding us, full of beings with whom we share a destiny. The concept of “Nature” is primitive, and necessary to construct the (white, Western) Human who has evolved beyond it.”
Vanessa Angélica Villarreal, author of award-winning Beast Meridian (2017) from Noemi Press and essay collection CHUECA, forthcoming from Tiny Reparations Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in 2023. She is a recipient of a 2021 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and PhD candidate at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles.
I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body.
FWR: Queer desire carries an inherent subversion of expectation, and with it, potentially, greater freedom of form and image. What are “the birds and the bees” of queer erotic poems? What metaphors are found in the biomes of queer poems, especially sexy ones?
AFT: I have been trying to find my own answer to this question. I have written about my experiences as a child of retreating to the woods as a place of safety. Often, I would find myself hiding in the woods where I could watch my family, seeing through the trees a world that could not embrace my queerness. I take my queerness to the woods where it is not moralistically judged by the trees or other flora. This question reminds me of Carl Phillips poetry and essay, especially his “Beautiful Dreamer” chapter in The Art of Daring, which describes stumbling on three men having sex against a tree in the woods. Perhaps the wilderness provides cover or separation from societal judgement, which is why we have so much to say about queerness and nature.
VAV: Nature was never accessible to me growing up—I was born on the US/Mexico border and grew up in Houston, Texas, an ever-sprawling, drowning city under construction where Nature is at least an hour drive away near the state prison, and where white flight takes its suburbs and fells trees to make room for endless strip malls and megachurches.
Still, nature asserted itself in surprising and subtle ways in the Black, Latine, and queer neighborhoods of Houston where I grew up. My childhood home is near Acres Homes—a historic Black homestead nestled between highways, famous for its barbecue and horse-mounted Black cowboys; I attended Pride at seventeen and got my first HIV test at the free clinic in Montrose, the (now fully-gentrified) historic gayborhood of Houston along Buffalo Bayou; I biked through the white-oak-lined side streets of Third Ward, Houston’s historic Black neighborhood, to attend the University of Houston. And as a child, the swampy young pines behind our house haunted my imagination and stayed with me long enough to inspire the inner nightlands of Beast Meridian.
Those pines were where I escaped the confines of gender and jumped my bike over ditches with boys, smoked cigarettes and listened to music with the bad kids, escaped angry parents to read The Bell Jar under honeysuckle, tagged anarchy symbols under bridges, explored flooded creeks and caught crawfish when the power was out after hurricanes, kissed and touched and undressed with every gender under the stars. After I got caught sneaking out at thirteen, my parents took my bedroom door off its hinges permanently, so throughout adolescence, the pines were the only place I had any privacy, the place where I became brave, the place that held my forbidden self, a sanctuary of desire that made safe my secrets, the moonlit clearing where young love blossomed in my body, a haven for a young girl in trouble to hide. My girl, my girl, don’t lie to me, tell me where did you sleep last night / In the pines, in the pines, where the sun don’t ever shine, I would shiver the whole night through. That vision of nature informs every poem in Beast Meridian, from “Malinche” to “Girlbody Gift” to the final sequence, “The Way Back”—the nightlands of forbidden desire, rebellion, trouble, alienation—where the speaker grieves her monstrosity until she can finally embrace her animal, and in so doing, sets herself free.
Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
RH: Being queer, I think, forces one deeply into one’s body—you become more aware than other people about the arbitrariness of gender and the randomness of having a body. I think animals abound in queer poems as metaphors, false or correct, of fully living in a body. Free from desire and emotional pain, social torment, strictures of marriage and morality. In my own poem, “Idyll,” the speaker desires to shed his skin; the act of speaking, of confessing to desire, is an act of undressing.
ET: I love this definition of queer. I think sometimes we think of queer as undoing or transforming, but often I think of queer as revealing what has always been. Rather than leaps, I think of sinking deeper into, of falling, of lying and pressing (as fingers into the soil)–all of which are unsurprisingly very sexy actions to take.
FWR: What does queer nature mean to you? If you experienced the HIV/AIDS pandemic, has experiencing the Covid-19 pandemic caused you to consider “nature” more than in the past?
RH: This is a hard question for me. I feel somewhat ambivalent about both “queerness” and “nature.” I don’t think of myself as a pastoral poet. I’d rather be in a museum than in a forest. But reading Queer Nature, I feel such a profound kinship with writers I’ve never met.
AFT: Queer nature is a catapult out of the limits of a single human body. It is a breaking out, a widening into the possibilities of a transformative understanding of boundaries of self.
I don’t have much to say about the HIV/AIDS pandemic and the Covid pandemic. It angers me that most people still think of HIV/AIDS as a ‘gay’ disease. Most people do not see the parallels. Most people can’t get to the point where they see how greed, environmental degradation, and ignorance lead to pandemics.
the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature
VAV: The nature of my youth was not the normative Nature of national parks or state reserves—it was a nameless, swampy half-acre of undeveloped land behind our house, where flooded ditches gouged the boundary between our neighborhood and the trailer park next door. That nature was where the “bad kids”—the troubled kids, rebels, outcasts, queer kids—found each other, not recognizing that our bond was not in our badness, but in shared trauma and alienation. The only way to get to our nature, queer nature, was to be disobedient, daring enough to break a rule, stay out after hours, trespass, know where to jump the fence. The forbidden places I went to skip school, smoke cigarettes, skinny dip, drop acid, give and get head, kiss both girls and boys, fuck in cars until police pulled up, were also where I went to read, write, and play guitar. And this has had a fundamental influence on my artistic practice—the act of creation is forever fused with subversion in nature. Nature and art are sites of disobedience, rebellion, and provocation—if I am not being subversive, vulnerable, provocative, brave, then I am not making the art I want to make.
Now in single motherhood, I live near Griffith Park and Southern California beaches, and nature is a haven from isolation and endless responsibility, an expansive companion that quiets my troubled heart, holds my grief in rosy light, and sends me guardians to guide my path—still deer, scrappy coyotes, vigilant owls, hovering hummingbirds, tumbling dolphins, fragrant artemisia—their presence urging me to go on when the world feels impossible and love never comes. Now, nature is where I go to slow down time and listen to the open, be with when there is no one, be with until there is.
ET: I think queer nature asks about access and owning and belonging. I think in both of these epidemics, we had to reckon with the truth that very little is owed to us and in fact, we are obligated to return our bodies to the natural world eventually. That sounds very bleak but what I mean is that my idea of queer nature is to be freed of invented obligation and restriction and to discover and experience what is opened.
FWR: To start, I was hoping you might speak about the pull of Greek mythology, both in its use as a framing device for some of the poems and a source of imagery in others.
RP: When I drafted my first poem about Medusa way back in 2007, it was about a different subject entirely. My mother had survived breast cancer and been in remission ever since her double mastectomy, but I’d come to realize that something significant had changed in both the way some men perceived and treated her (and women like her), as well as the way she perceived herself. Something about that recalled to my mind the mythic woman with snakes for hair, that body transformed into something so terrifying that it also physically petrified anyone who looked upon it.
But as I delved deeper into the myth — or the myriad variations of the myth — I moved away from that idea and toward what, to me, is the real crux of Medusa’s story: She is a woman who, in many versions of the myth, is raped by Poseidon on the altar of Athena; then, as if that wasn’t heinous enough, she is transformed into a monster. And this is the story of so many women (and others, not just women) to this day. That realization was too powerful and potent to ignore.
And there were a lot of directions I could’ve gone in telling any story of survivorship. I suppose I could’ve just stuck to a contemporary story or set of stories; I could’ve also written it in prose, but poetry specifically allowed me to bridge important gaps between fiction and nonfiction in a way that felt natural, seamless, and protective because poetry can be both and neither of those things — fiction and nonfiction — at the same time. But to me, there’s something very powerful about pointing back to something so old, because it effectively allows me to say, “Look! Look at how much time has passed, and look at how this still has not changed. That’s not OK.” Something as old as Greek myth allows you to do that. Another thing about the myth, specific to Medusa, is that the story of her becoming a monster in so many versions quite literally relies on that singular act of sexual violence at the hands of Poseidon. Before that, without that, she is portrayed as an average woman — beautiful, perhaps, but a physical form we’d recognize.
But because most mythology (Greek or otherwise) also comes with its own set of images — symbols — which seem to be more fantastical to us in today’s world because they are so far from our lived experience— it is a rich trove from which to draw imagery and metaphor. While you can reinterpret the meaning of that imagery, as I did often throughout the book, a lot of it was more or less handed to me as part of the original story, from the snakes to the ocean to the stone — all of which, it seemed to me, related very specifically to sexual assault survivorship. And with any luck, in Head of a Gorgon, I’ve built out those ways in which I saw the myth’s imagery and the subject of survivorship connecting.
FWR: I was intrigued by starting Head of a Gorgon with the Flash Forward section and “The Gorgon’s Parting Thoughts”, which, to me, created a structural ouroboros. How did you decide on the structure of the manuscript?
RP: I love that concept: a “structural ouroboros”! That’s an awesome way of describing it! I’m stealing that!
The reason we flash forward to an end at the beginning is twofold. One, I was taking a feminist theory course in grad school while working on my thesis, which was how the concept for Head of a Gorgon started, and one of the things we discussed is the experience of time as it relates to gendered experience and society. Some suggest women’s experience of time is more cyclical — think menstrual cycles and the like — whereas men’s might be considered more linear — and here I think we can infer what the reference would be to in that case. I wanted both, especially since, in some versions of the Medusa myth, she actually represents the circle of life (birth, death, and rebirth), but this writer exists in a patriarchy.
The other aspect relates to the title and what is actually going on overall in the book. That moment when Medusa “dies” right at the beginning is the opening up of her head, from which this entire story is able to pour. In some versions of the original myth, when Medusa is beheaded, Pegasus and Chrysaor fly out. It’s quite a stretch to consider the book itself Pegasus or Chrysaor, but the idea of something having to end, in order to begin again and/or get to the core of its meaning made sense to me in the framework of this version of the myth.
FWR: Building off the idea of the ouroboros, I thought the use of repetition was powerful, particularly in the return of the “Your Captain Speaking” poems. Upon my first read of the first instance of a poem titled this, I was struck by how the poem pointed to voice and power structures: “who cares what other stories have told you? /… Who retains the right to name?”. Repetition returns later, with both secrets kept and new relationships reminiscent of old. Could you talk about what drew you to repetition?
RP: There is so much related to survivorship that reinforces, that ruminates, that obsesses. It can be very cyclical in quite literal ways: Being sexually assaulted at a young age, for instance, puts victims at a higher risk for being victimized again in the future. The physical experience could have ended, but the survivor’s mind can replay it over and over (i.e., PTSD). It can, in many ways, become all-consuming. So repetition is essential, to me, in portraying some fundamental aspects of the experience of survivorship.
Specifically with respect to the three “Your Captain Speaking” poems, originally, those three poems had different titles when they were first published. But at some point, as the collection really started solidifying, it seemed to me that those three poems in particular, which were always similar in tone, were more or less coming from the same sort of persona, and it was someone I didn’t want to specifically name because I wanted to leave that open to the reader’s interpretation. But how could I still signal to the reader that these three poems are from the same persona just like poems from the perspective of “P” are all Poseidon and the capital-“S” Snake is also a singular persona?
I happen to be a huge Louise Glück fan — her poem “Mock Orange” was transformational for me as a writer — and she actually has three poems interspersed throughout her collection The Seven Ages that are all titled “Fable.” So I thought, “Well, maybe that device can work here, too.” In that sense, the title of those three poems in Head of a Gorgon is a bit of an homage as well.
FWR: Another form of repetition were the “Shedding Skin” poems, which are erasures of poems that appear earlier in the manuscript. Can you talk about the development of these poems?
RP: If repetition is symbolic of what traps a survivor, then strikethroughs/erasures/rewriting can be considered symbolic of freeing oneself of that cycle, or at the very least creating something new. But there was something early on for me with this collection that called to me to recognize that the change and escape needed to be physically represented on the page, and erasure — making something new and empowering from something that had once been used against the self — was a physical, visual, tangible way of accomplishing that.
FWR: One of the poems that first jumped out at me was “Sex Ed,” which I thought both played with the reveal of information, on a multitude of levels, and struck me as an exploration of innocence and loss, particularly the lines “naming things commands / nothing”.
I’ve been thinking about the Teju Cole essay “Death in a Browser Tab” recently and how artists can make sense of violence (in its many facets) without emphasizing the act, but rather the human experience of it. How did you balance the tension between naming the act of violence (and violation) and centering the person experiencing it?
RP: Did I balance the tension? I’m not sure I know, because that wasn’t something I specifically set out to do. And I think that’s because it’s my belief that there’s no amount of telling someone what a certain experience feels like that will make them actually experience the thing. Words themselves are symbols — like how maybe one way we can think of Rene Magritte’s “The treachery of images (This is not a pipe)” is that he is directly acknowledging that an image of a pipe is not the same as having an actual, 3D pipe in one’s hand.
So even in the Cole essay you referenced, for example, the viewing of another’s death doesn’t give the viewer the experience of personally dying, nor does it provide them with the experience of someone killing, nor does it even provide the experience of witnessing such events firsthand; it provides only the experience — still undoubtedly traumatic, still undoubtedly tragic — of witnessing those types of things at a distance, on a screen. But the viewer is feeling a set of feelings that may or may not be similar to any of the other three real-life experiences not actually experienced by the viewer.
I very much hesitate to say that artists “make sense” of violence or any other thing, for that matter — at least to anyone besides the artist themself. But having the belief that no amount of explaining or describing any act is going to make someone who hasn’t personally lived through it experience it firsthand or understand that experience as someone who has lived through it — and even two people experiencing, say, the same violent act will experience it differently, though there’s more common ground between the two — leaves a writer with the option instead to create some other type of experience that the writer (if the writer is like me) hopes draws toward something maybe approaching a universal truth, if there can even be such a thing, out of a real or imagined experience.
With respect to a poem like “Sex Ed” specifically, I simply set out to give voice to a woman, Medusa, who is sidelined and silenced in most tellings of her own story. And there are certainly other interpretations of this voice and story based on who’s doing the telling. We need common terms to refer to in this case — sexual abuse, assault, rape — so that people have some sense of general foundation of what’s being discussed. But from there, words are just a different experience than those actual physical, real-life experiences entirely. This is where words — and for me, any art form — will always fail. Still, I do believe in the power of words — some power in them — because look at the harm they can also cause. It’s not a physical violence, per se, but it is a violence nevertheless.
Is this all confusing, contradictory, paradoxical? I suppose. But it’s still all also true, at least to me.
FWR: I was also drawn to the poem “Cheer”, which spoke to ideas of power and heroism, as the speaker details “hoping the right / words paired with the right actions will someday / help me take some form of flight.” I read “Note From the Nadir” as a response to this childhood optimism, as the speaker wrestles with the fact that “no savior awaits”; now “I know the hero I sought will never reach me, doesn’t exist.” Instead, “my head still ingested what was fed. / What can you do when part of the problem is you?” Assuming I’m not off base (and I very well may be), can you speak to how you developed the conversations between the poems, and overall emotional arc of the book? Thinking of heroism and the head of the gorgon, how does the story of Medusa and Perseus fit?
RP: When you work on something for a decade-plus, you probably have too much time to think about it, but I tried in many ways to build as much meaning as I could — as many layers as possible — into this work. There are a lot of Easter eggs. What you’re referring to here — the conversations among the various poems — was very much considered and deliberate. This is easier to do when you have a narrative arc and are kind of building a shorter version of a novel in verse — perhaps a novella in verse. This is where my original background in fiction came into play. So I took the pieces I had, which were from Medusa’s adulthood and I thought of the parts, then, that were necessarily missing, like a childhood. And I started building some threads, images, terms that would be common among them and would evolve through the book.
Just like any person, there is change along the way; there is devolution, evolution, or both. The arc for my Medusa is devolution, to a kind of death, to a necessary evolution in order to survive — a mirroring of the birth/death/rebirth cycle that Medusa represents in some versions of the myth but that’s really all tied to the feminine in general (e.g., Mother Nature). Some of these concepts were drawn from the myth; others were drawn from survivorship. But all really echo the idea that each of us needs to become our own hero; Medusa, for me, is no exception to this rule. I tend to believe that it’s when we look outward for saviors that we are in the most danger. And I say this as a spiritual person, but one who acknowledges the truth of my personal experiences and understands that the universe requires action on one’s own behalf — like “The Drowning Man” story — in order to find one’s personal, true salvation.
FWR: What are other poems, or who are the poets, that you turned to as guide posts in the creation and construction of your poems?
RP: This book would not exist at all without Larissa Szporluk, who even beyond being my mentor and advisor is the brightest light I know in the poetry world with respect to understanding to the core that literally every story anyone ever tells is myth — and delivers that message to us constantly through her work and her teaching. Louise Glück, whom I mentioned earlier, is my top influence as far as voice is concerned; the authority of voice in her work was definitely something I strived toward in Head of a Gorgon. Anne Carson’s Autobiography of Red would be a close second with respect to this collection in particular, from the mythic aspects to the narrative arc to the play with form.
Jason Shinder’s work also influenced my collection. His work feels at times as if it were written in a vacuum; he seemed to know what he needed to express was important and created a world unto itself in which the way he spoke was the only way that would’ve made sense and was therefore the best way. I wanted to create this Medusa’s world in a vacuum. I wanted the bulk of Head of a Gorgon to feel isolating, inescapable, suffocating, because this is what I imagine Medusa’s experiences in the first few sections of the book feel like.
Others of note include Marie Howe; she does an impeccable job of what you were pointing to in your fifth question with respect to speaking on the experience of survivorship. She just calls a thing a thing with such directness and clarity, yet also such beauty. Sharon Olds’ writing on all things feminine and domestic helped me to ground my work in the everyday, ordinary things of contemporary life as I transported this ancient myth into modern times. The political in Adrienne Rich’s work, of course, is essential. Monique Wittig’s Les Guerilleres, whose nonlinearity is inspiring. Virginia Woolf’s Orlando and Joanna Russ’ The Female Man for their explorations of gender. Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton for their sharp words. And William Shakespeare for his deep dive into form but also making form feel more conversational, less form-y by the standards of his time — another thing I strived toward in my collection.
Raegen Pietrucha writes, edits, and consults creatively and professionally. Head of a Gorgon is her debut poetry collection. Her poetry chapbook, An Animal I Can’t Name, won the 2015 Two of Cups Press competition, and she has a memoir in progress. She received her MFA from Bowling Green State University, where she was an assistant editor for Mid-American Review. Her work has been published in Cimarron Review, Puerto del Sol, and other journals. Connect with her at raegenmp.wordpress.com and on Twitter @freeradicalrp.
Matthew Olzmann’s latest collection, Constellation Route, is out now from Alice James. He has published two previous collections, Contradictions in the Design and Mezzanines, and he has received fellowships from Kundiman, the Kresge Arts Foundation and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference.
FWR: Can you speak on the genesis and organization of Constellation Route?
MO: I’ve written poems that mimic a letter, or utilize an epistolary or apostrophe approach often before, and at some point I just thought that if I have fun doing that, what would happen if I did that non stop for a while? So that was the genesis; it didn’t necessarily start out as ‘I’m writing a book of these’ but instead wanting to see what direction the writing would go if I kept doing it over and over. How long would it stay interesting for me, this thing that is often a default mode for me? Would it remain interesting or would it evolve? Would I make new discoveries? I think sometimes in writing, there’s the impulse to reinvent the wheel each time you sit down and write, but if something seems interesting to you or something feels productive, you should try to do that again.
I thought [the organization of the book] would be easier than my previous two books because in those books, the subject matter is somewhat disparate, so that challenge was to see how I could get these things to fit together. With [Constellation Route], since they all have a similar approach or they’re about postal terminology, it felt as though there’s already a governing logic for why they belong in the same book.
But then I started having new challenges. For example, when so many poems have the same approach, how do you create variation, how do you change things up? That affected the writing process later, as I tried to write things in new directions. Then [this book] had all the challenges my other books have had. Even though there’s a formal approach that makes [these poems] similar, the subject matter and tone can vary widely. It ended up having all the old challenges and some new ones, just to make it interesting.
FWR: As I was reading through it, I loved the moment where poems came back to a subject or referenced a previous poem (for example, “Letter to the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America” and “Letter to the Person Who Carved His Initials into the Oldest Living Longleaf Pine in North America”). The opening and closing poems to me seemed really set, so I had wondered if you had written “Day Zero” and “Conversion” with the intention of having them as those bookends.
MO: I didn’t write any of those intending for them to be in a specific position; “Day Zero” had a different place in the book, and Jessica Jacobs said I should start with that poem. As I was putting the book together, some of those things were things I was aware of. I wanted to spread them out so there was this echo.
FWR: To build on that idea, I’m struck by how writing the same structure of a poem, an epistolary or an apostrophe, is reminiscent of how an echo can lead to deviation. There’s the sameness, but also beauty in the deviation. It reminds me of how a postal route works– presumably, you’re going through the same route and making the same stops, but you’re seeing them in new lights or in new ways as you move through the seasons or through a place.
MO: The post office, despite my limited knowledge of some aspects of it, ended up having some influence on not only the poems but also the shape of the book and the language. Looking at the glossary of postal terms, wing case, day zero, everything seemed to be like an institution made by a poet.
FWR: In a conversation with Kaveh Akbar, hosted by A Mighty Blaze, you spoke about play in poetry as a spiritual or meditative practice, and how “irreverence requires acknowledgement of something grand”. To what extent do you feel you’re using humor as a bridge to the reader, or even to deflect someone’s guard being up?
MO: I think in our daily lives, we can use humor to attack or criticize, but also to charm and entertain, or to diffuse tension. We can use it to introduce an idea or to present something in an unexpected manner. I think in poems or stories, or perhaps any kind of writing, one of the things that’s useful about humor is that it disrupts the reader’s ability to anticipate to a degree. As a writer, I’m generally interested in humor because it creates a point of contrast. I like poems that have more than one emotion, especially placed next to each other. Sometimes it’s because an emotion next to the other sets off the second, whether that’s moving from certainty to doubt, or anger to something more meditative, from grief to wonder. I’m also just drawn to writing as a reader and as a writer that isn’t presenting human experience in a monotonous way. I feel both terror and wonder when looking out into the world, and I’m trying to find a space where both of those can exist in the writing process.
FWR: The poem “Letter to Matthew Olzmann, Sent Telepathically from a Flock of Pigeons While Surrounding Him on a Park Bench in Detroit, Michigan” comes to mind, and how it moves from the absurd to this greater, more empathetic commentary. As a teacher, I think that humor helps open poems up and make them accessible or an experience to be shared. And that transition, from the human to a more humane tapestry to find oneself in I think works really well in this collection.
MO: I see what you mean about humor being a point of connection. When I think about other artists who I’m drawn to, there’s something about humor that feels, in the audience, engaging or charming. It can feel like I’m being let into something– when you’re both laughing, you feel like you’re in on the joke. It’s hard to imagine who’s reading a poem when you’re writing it. I have some people in mind, sometimes, I’m always going to share what I write with my partner, Vievee, but after that, when the poem goes into the world, I have no idea who’s reading it. I like the idea of it being accessible to some people who aren’t necessarily poetry scholars or writers.
FWR: In the title poem, “Constellation Route”, you write:
…a messenger… gets wildly lost. It’s night.
Lonely. He glances to the sky–
inside that disorder,
he finds one light that makes sense, and that’s enough
to guide him to the next stop.
For me, that was the moment where a lot of the poems clicked, where I felt like I could name the theme that I couldn’t quite put my finger on previously: the idea of community. This fits what we’ve talked about with how humor forms connection, but also the letter form as a way of asserting a community (of friends, of writers). This seemed to come up again and again in your poems, whether “Fourteen Letters to a 52-Hertz Whale” (“Do you ever wonder that because your voice is impossible to hear, maybe no one will make the effort? That you can work really hard and try to be a good person… but then… the waves will just swallow you whole?”) or “Letter Written While Waiting in Line at Comic Con” (“…it’s not/ these costumes that amaze me; it’s always been/ the languages. The way they reach/ for something that can’t be said/ in our tongue.”).One of the things you seem to be reaching at is how we form and maintain community, and then, looking at the United States, how might this idea of community be under threat or at risk of change in ways that might not be particularly kind.
MO: I don’t know if I was thinking of community as one of the primary thematic drivers of when I was making the book, but I started to become aware of that later. One of the reasons I might not have been aware of it in the writing is that I tend to write poems one-at-a-time, without necessarily thinking of how they relate to one another. I write the poems and assemble books later.
But when I started putting Constellation Route together, one of the things I was thinking about was how to make things feel communal. This was part of the reason for including letters with other people in them (such as “Letter to Matthew Olzmann from Ross White, Re: The Tardigrade”) to give the sense that there were more people involved than one version of Matthew.
One of the questions I was asked recently is if the speaker in these poems, excluding those obviously persona, is me. Are the poems autobiographical? While I think it would be hard for all of them to be me, I’m sure all of them contain aspects of me or some aspect of my world view. Oliver de La Paz said something about his own poems about autobiography that really resonated with me, the idea that in an autobiographical poem, the speaker resembles you the way John Malkovich resembles John Malkovich in Being John Malkovich. I might be taking this quote out of context, but I think the speaker in any of my poems is a performance of the self. It might represent the self but it’s a performance or an aspect of the self, and there can be many of those.
You mention the conversation with A Mighty Blaze and Kaveh [Akbar], and before that, he and I were talking about how the book we haven’t written, the one that’s still in your head, is always perfect, or has the potential to be. Before you’ve made it into an object, it’s this thing that exists in the realm in perfect speculation. Most of the poems, once I tried to write them, it was a pretty messy process. Messy, but some of the fun is making discoveries. A lot of the poems, I might have a line or a vague idea, but I don’t necessarily sit down with a thoroughly mapped out route toward a destination in mind.
I like writing for the process of writing. I like the process of being there and working. There’s a point when I’m working on a poem that I’m imagining it as a point of connection. I imagine how someone might read it, and then it becomes a moment where I’m reaching for a point of contact. Rather than withdrawing from the world, it feels like working on a way to venture out and make contact with people.
FWR: Thinking of connection, or perhaps the perfect poem, are there poems that you love to teach, that do what you’re reaching towards?
MO: It’s constantly changing. It’s a list I’m constantly adding to. So many poems that I love to teach and some of the old standbys: “Iskandariya” by Brigit Pegeen Kelly; “It Is Maybe Time to Admit That Michael Jordan Definitely Pushed Off” by Hanif Abdurraqib; “Wishes for Sons”, by Lucille Clifton, or “Sorrows” or “note, passed to superman”– I remember the first time I read her series of notes to Clark Kent, I remember thinking, “you can do that? You can write notes to these people?”; Rilke’s “The Archaic Torso of Apollo”; “Brokeheart: just like that”, by Patrick Rosal or “Guitar”; “Ode to the Maggot” by Yusuf Komunyaaka; Campbell McGrath’s “My Music”; Cathy Linh Che’s “Poem for Ferguson”; most of Szymborska’s poems. I like talking about her poems “True Love” and “Pi”, “Notes From a Nonexistent Himalayan Expedition”, “A Large Number”, “The End and the Beginning”– I could go on and on.
Clifford Thompson is the recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award for nonfiction in 2013 for Love for Sale and Other Essays, published by Autumn House Press. He has also published a memoir (Twin of Blackness), a novel (Signifying Nothing) and a nonfiction book (What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues). Thompson’s graphic novel Big Man and the Little Men, which he wrote and illustrated, is due out from Other Press in Fall 2022.
FWR: Having read a lot of your fiction and nonfiction, I was excited to hear that you’re publishing a graphic novel, Big Man and the Little Men, due out next year from Other Press, which you’re writing and illustrating. What does this process look like? Do images come for you before writing, or vice versa? Many writers map out ideas through drawing. How does creating your own illustrations affect your writing process?
CT: I begin by writing. The script comes first. The images are in my head, if only hazily; I’ll write, for example, “Three-quarter view of men on right side of the table.” But I don’t put those images on paper until the real illustrating begins. The script is largely a series of IOUs to myself. That is, it’s easy to put in the script, as I did at one point, “Drawing of a baseball game.” The payment comes due, you might say, when it’s time to illustrate that panel, when I sit at my drafting table and think, “Oh. Right. Now I’ve got to draw a baseball game. How do I do that?” So as a writer I put myself in positions that I then have to draw my way out of. In that way, there’s a certain amount of improvisation involved. (I find it hard to resist allusions to jazz.) For example, when it comes time to draw those men on the right side of the table, I may decide as I’m drawing that one of the men is giving the other a sidelong glance.
FWR: The prose in a graphic novel has to be so crisp and focused on action. How do you work within these limitations? Do you overwrite, then whittle down, or do you have other methods?
CT: One challenging thing about a graphic novel is that there are practical considerations of the kind you don’t run into with a regular novel, or even with painting. One is that you can fit only so many words in a panel. So I may discover, as I’m doing the actual lettering for the dialogue I’ve written, that not all of it will fit, or at least not comfortably. Then it’s a matter of rephrasing the dialogue, retaining its flavor while making it as concise as possible. Sometimes I end up improving it, almost by accident.
Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out.
FWR: How does starting a written piece compare to drawing or painting? Has your graphic novel bridged these two approaches, or does it feel like a different approach entirely?
CT: Writing and painting are similar for me in that the idea is half the battle. Once I have an idea, the challenge is to find the best way to carry it out. When I’m writing, that often involves lists. I’m a big list-maker, especially when it comes to essays. I like to list aspects of the subject I want to write about, then study the items on the list to see what the connections exist among these seemingly disparate things or ideas; I’ll draw arrows from one thing to another. Sometimes I find a lot of arrows going to the same item, and that can be a sign that I’ve hit on something. For paintings, once I have an idea, I pull out my sketch pad and work out the composition, the proportions and relative positions of everything. I have the sketch-pad drawing next to me when I make pencil outlines on the canvas.
Again, the graphic novel begins for me with writing, but I would say that the graphic novel bridges writing and painting in that the written and visual aspects of the work spell each other. The graphic novel is a visual medium, but you need words. You just do. Even Kyle Baker’s terrific graphic novel Nat Turner, which is almost all pictures, uses some words. Still, some of my favorite moments of working on Big Man and the Little Men are when I can draw a panel or series of panels that speak for themselves. A motion, a facial expression, a character’s eyes looking in a certain direction, three people’s heads turning toward a fourth person who has just uttered a non-sequitur, a hug between two forty-year-olds who last saw each other in high school—panels like that can say it all. Not a single word needed. I find that satisfying.
I’ve been painting now for years, which has come in handy with the graphic novel because of all the time I’ve spent shading with colors in painting. To a certain extent I’ve transferred that process to the graphic novel: I shade with colored pencils, darkening some areas of a face, for example, while taking an eraser to other areas. That is one thing I didn’t do when I was drawing comics in high school, oh so long ago now.
A friend of mine, looking over the pages of Big Man that I’ve illustrated, observed that my unit of visual expression—he said something to that effect—is not so much the individual panel as the page. I think that’s accurate. The page comes together to form a kind of statement.
FWR: Your Four Way piece, “Quintessence,” ponders creativity—where inspiration comes from, how and why we write what we do. You’ve written a lot about music, film, and visual art over your career. Some of your artwork has a tone that resembles Augusta Savage or the stark lines of Elizabeth Catlett, another DC artist. How do other artists, writers, or their mediums inform your work?
CT: I appreciate the comparison to those women. I find that I like two things in visual art: color and simplicity. The work of the Fauves, and artists such as Catlett and Jacob Lawrence and William H. Johnson, greatly appeals to me for those reasons. In some graphic novels I read, I admire all the detail the artists put in as well as the artists’ technical ability; still, because the images are so lifelike, with so much going on, sometimes my eye doesn’t know where to go. So I try to put in a few details but focus largely on color, composition, and the central image.
When it comes to writing, I am never consciously aware of being influenced by others’ work, but sometimes people see things in your writing that you don’t see. In my book What It Is, I write about James Baldwin and Albert Murray, among others. The reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement wrote that I had blended, “consciously or not,” the “voices of [my] mentors Baldwin and Murray.”
FWR: In The Rumpus earlier this year, you explained: “It could almost be said that much of my work is an attempt to solve a puzzle.” In Big Man and the Little Men, a writer becomes enmeshed in a presidential campaign when an accusation is made against the nominee. What puzzle pieces are at work in this book, and how did you decide what form they would take?
CT: I think the puzzle at the bottom of Big Man is: how do you do the right thing when there seems to be no right thing to do? That’s the quandary that my main character, April Wells, faces. As for deciding on the form, I’m not even sure I did. The idea came to me fully formed.
FWR: I wonder if you can elaborate on this. How do you move between more planning-oriented techniques—like your lists, arrows and IOUs—to more intuitive ones? Or are you describing more of an organic gradual process of both, one feeding the other?
CT: Maybe a good analogy would be carrying out a military or spy mission (not that I have ever carried out either of those). That is to say, you can make lists and draw arrows and write IOUs, just as you get instructions for a mission; but doing the thing is where it happens—the fun and the risk, the difficulty and the discovery, the improvisation and toil and surprise.
FWR: You’ve written often about politics, including in What It Is, and most recently in a series of essays for Commonweal Magazine. Big Man too is interested in the political. Do you have any craft tips or observations in terms of how you approach political writing across forms?
CT: You know what’s funny? Until I read your question, it hadn’t occurred to me that I’ve written often about politics—maybe because the works you mention are all so different from one another. But you’re right, I guess I have. And I guess the reason is that presidential politics have fascinated me since the first election I remember, when I was nine, when McGovern ran against Nixon in 1972—still the gold standard for lopsided election results. (I’m proud to say I’m from Washington, DC, one of two places in the whole country that McGovern carried.)
I don’t know if I have any craft tips for writing about politics, but I do have one observation, which is that, fundamentally, nothing is new. That may be a good thing to keep in mind when writing about politics. So maybe that is some kind of tip, I don’t know. But here is an example of what I mean: The first five presidents of my lifetime were John F. Kennedy (who was killed when I was eight months old), Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, and Jimmy Carter. Not one of those men served two full terms, and a couple of them didn’t even complete one term. So for my entire childhood, the American presidency seemed like an unstable thing. Then, for decades after that, with the single exception of George H. W. Bush, the presidents were two-termers: Reagan, Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama. Then, of course, came Trump, demonstrating the cyclical nature of politics. For all the sheer, seemingly unprecedented god-awfulness of the Trump years, his shenanigans and defeat were almost like a return to my childhood. It was sort of like when people used to go into movie theaters in the middle of the movie and stay for the beginning: “I remember this—this is where I came in.” (That said, I pray that this round of chaos ended with Trump. I wish President Biden great good luck.)
FWR: Sometimes when I read your work, I’m reminded of Virginia Woolf’s concept of caves. Ideas, characters, or narratives which seem disconnected, eventually, as Woolf describes it, “connect and each comes to daylight at the present moment.” How does this process of braiding seemingly disparate elements into a single narrative work for you in making a graphic novel? Is this different than in your writing fiction or nonfiction?
CT: I am delighted by that characterization of my work, and I’ll take a comparison to Virginia Woolf any day of the week! I would say that the braiding happens more in my nonfiction, and yet, now that you mention it (you ask very good questions!), I see that there is braiding at work with Big Man. The story’s prologue has two scenarios involving different sets of characters, with no indication of what they have to do with each other. But later it becomes clear.
FWR: What’s next for you after Big Man and the Little Men?
CT: Time will tell. I have several manuscripts in various stages of readiness. One is a manuscript of poems. I said to my wife that I’m working toward publishing one of every kind of book—a joke, though not really.
Ghinwa Jawhari named her debut chapbook, selected by poet Aria Aber for publication by Radix Media, BINT, Arabic for girl. In Arab cultures, the word is also used to describe a virgin woman, of any age. In this series of poems, compact in form yet unbridled in lyricism, Jawhari explores the passage (particularly of those in Arab diaspora) from bint to woman: its wounds, its pleasures, and its inevitable reverberations on societal and self perception.
Jahwari is a Lebanese American writer (and practicing dentist), currently living in Brooklyn. Born to Druze parents in Cleveland, she grew up listening to poetry from her father, who often recited traditional poetry in Arabic, or Zajal, around the house. In middle school, she wrote little poems and saved them in spiral notebooks, before going on to study English, alongside chemistry, in undergrad. Over the past few years, her essays, fiction, and poetry have been featured in Catapult, Narrative, Mizna, The Adroit Journal, and other publications.
As an Arab woman myself, I found an incredible kinship with the speaker(s) in Jawhari’s poems. The opening poem, titled “condition”, piercingly captures the strain stepping into womanhood places on our relationship with our fathers; “when you had the sterile body of a child / you were loved by your father / now you’re grown”, she writes. For me, the erosion of the father’s unconditional love in tandem with the girl stepping into the body of a woman could not have been captured more poignantly, more resonantly.
And it’s not just the speaker’s voice that was familiar. Many of the poems in BINT have Arabic titles, and are decorated with objects that I myself grew up around—prayer beads and “blue eyes hung over the door”; the Mediterranean, which Egypt has in common with Lebanon—carrying the bodies of the girls in Jawhari’s poems. When we met (online) to talk about her stunning chapbook, Jawhari told me that it was her intention to write BINT for readers who would relate to it. “When you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do,” she said.
In the interview below, Jawhari reflects on her insistence to avoid writing towards the white gaze, and shares the thought processes that led to her choice of form, language and imagery for BINT.
Sara Elkamel: I found an incredible tension between divulgence and restraint in BINT, in terms of both language and form. But I’d like to start by asking you specifically about form. Even though you’re tackling these expansive subjects that could probably fill notebooks—including queerness, intimacy, and what being a girl, or a woman, means to you—the poems materialize in these really slight, compressed shapes on the page. How did you arrive at these forms for BINT?
Ghinwa Jawhari: First, the chapbook was written for people who already know what a bint is. It’s not written for the white gaze. I didn’t want to spend time explaining the context. I was trying to figure out how to get across, in the smallest amount of words, facts central to our lived reality as girls—like in “counterfeit,” the poem about getting sewed up to ‘restore’ her virginity; becoming “regirled.”
And secondly, the form was informed and constrained by this project being a chapbook. I was at home during the COVID outbreak, and it was the first time I wasn’t working in a long time. I was excited to be sitting at my desk every day and focusing on a single theme. Because I knew it was going to be a chapbook, everything had to lend to brevity. It’s less than 30 pages—so in order for the pieces to work together, they all had to be concise. They’re in conversation with one another.
Sara Elkamel: I’m intrigued by this choice of not writing towards a western gaze—especially since Arabic words often appear in your poems, most notably in the title, BINT, which means girl, yes, but also signifies “virgin” in our culture. As poets, I think that sometimes when we use Arabic, we feel the need to explain or translate what we’re saying as we say it, which can very well get in the way of the poem. And I’ve definitely done that in my work before.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Yeah, I’ve done that too! So much of my work before BINT was me explaining. But when you begin to dismiss that, and when you say to yourself: I’m going to write this to my sister or my cousin, suddenly it frees you to do whatever the hell you want to do. You become far less concerned with “Does it make sense?” and more attentive to “Is this true?” It’s no longer: “Will somebody understand me?” but instead, “Will the people who already understand this context agree that this is what happens?” So it’s all a focus shift.
Sara Elkamel: I definitely related to the bint you gave us—at once susceptible to cultural forces and forceful in her own right. I was especially drawn to the verbs you associated with the body.
without consent my small body erred
into hair-tainted womanhood, polluted me
with breasts. i begged for men, any men,
to appear from the fog of my dreams.
In “instead a palace”, for instance, there is some kind of agency—the body itself erring—coupled with a vulnerability to external perception; “polluted me” gestures towards what womanhood does to the body in the eyes of the street. Then in “a girlhood summer passes”, you turn towards illustrating the intimidating power of a girl’s body with a line like: “our slim bodies assault / the surface of the water”. So I’m wondering about these minor choices you made in language, specifically your wiedling of verbs.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love that you asked about that, because I paid so much attention to the verbs—changing nouns into verbs, being very careful and earnest with what kind of verbs I used. I was trying to capture the body as an embodiment of what the outside world wants it to be. In the earlier poems of the chapbook, I was thinking about how a girl’s body is essentially a socio-political construct; the body is cultural. We can’t escape it—it happens to us. It’s not something that I have agency over. Versus in the poem “condition”, which comes at the end of BINT, when finally there’s a turn. I wouldn’t say there’s redemption—I think that’s simplifying it a bit. But at the end, the women can kind of make light of the fact that they have arm hair, make fun of virginity, and choose to drink.
girlhood an illustrious specter, then.
we pass through & barely remember
its tightly wound calamities, its fears.
as women we lace our mirth with liquor.
virginity an elaborate antique, unfashionable
as arm hair. we rid ourselves of last names.
So the girl body is what’s constructed, and constricted—it’s the thing that has to be decorated, preserved, defended and instructed what to do—whereas the woman body has some agency, holds space to become different, something self-directed.
Sara Elkamel: I admire how you’re really digging into the different layers of what makes a girl a girl. The poem “counterfeit”, for instance, invokes the economy around girlhood.
my father pays the surgeon to return me a bint.
in an hour i am unruined, regirled.
I also love this poem because it feels very playful—even though it’s essentially very dark. I think readers who don’t share our culture would be horrified that these surgeries take place. But you’re like, yes, this is happening. Right now. In this poem. I also really enjoyed the invocation of role-play.
this time i know the value of a counterfeit
so i behave myself, role-play. all of it a trick:
honor restored as if it can ever be,
worthless masquerading worthwhile.
It feels like the speaker is hyper aware of performance and performativity; that “worthless” and “worthwhile” are both nothing but costumes that we put on. As you were tackling such brutal subject matter, did it feel manageable to still experiment and play?
Ghinwa Jawhari: The final draft of that poem came out playful by accident, in a way. When I started it, all I had was “worthless masquerading worthwhile.” Whenever I write a poem, it always starts with a single line, and then it grows out from there. So the initial concept revolved around this charade: A hymenoplasty restores a “false” virginity, intended to be perceived as true. So what is virginity if it’s this easy? I think the playfulness might stem from the bint’s nod to this as a cosmic joke we play on the body, sewing it up and asking others to pretend along with us. It states pointedly that these concepts are fake to begin with.
And it is pretend. It’s roleplay. You’re roleplaying a woman, you’re roleplaying a virgin. And Arab women, I think—or SWANA women in diaspora—understand that there are tricks we have to learn to play. We shed these selves all the time. If you’re going to your family’s house, and you’ve just been out drinking and partying, and you have makeup everywhere, the first thing you think is: I need to get clean and look like I wasn’t anywhere. Like I was studying. We’re all familiar with that. To roleplay the perfect daughter, we are not 100% honest about our identities with our families. Because if you’re doing anything that doesn’t subscribe to what they perceive that role to be, it’s wrong.
So that was always at the back of my mind—that a lot of being a girl, especially when you’re young, is lying. We can say pretending, too: pretending to like something, pretending to be feminine, or obedient, pretending to behave oneself, so to speak. I’m 30 now, but I wrote this when I was 29. So I was at the cusp of that old maid, unmarried title. Another role! I was just so fed up with it, because it’s nonstop. So one way to subvert these expectations is to add humor, or make the reality playful and ridiculous, because it is.
In order for us to survive, anyway, we have to undercut the seriousness of things. And that’s kind of the thread through the chapbook: despite what they’re telling us, it’s not that serious. That’s almost the saving grace. We have to tell ourselves: I’m fine. I’m going to be okay. Even if I don’t fit every single role the way they’re telling me I have to.
Sara Elkamel: I am also very interested in the way you play with bodily organs and animals in your poems. In “winter of the acned year”, your invocation of animal slaughter really struck me, particularly because it shares space with a trace of the speaker’s late night masturbation.
beneath the quilts piled on us, i silenced with my hands
the loud wet thing that would not let me sleep
pawed myself to dog-panting at the remembered eyes
of the man who had slaughtered a ram before me
I guess this poem made me think about the proximity of intimacy and violence in your poems; here, we’re given this very solitary fantasy, and the deceptive tenderness of the man’s eyes, before a sudden transition towards sacrificial slaughter. Your choice of couplets for form also brought the tenderness and the violence even closer together, which I found very moving.
Ghinwa Jawhari: I love this poem. It actually started out as one huge paragraph, and then I cut it into couplets. I think my reading of this poem—and it could be a wrong reading, even though I wrote it [laughs]—is that it’s a time when you’re kind of acned, not really mature, not fully into your sexual-ness yet. You’re beneath a heavy quilt, which is supposed to keep you warm, but is also restrictive, and you’re silencing yourself with your hands because you’re horny—you don’t know why. And it all has this closeness to the violence of sacrificial slaughter. But then the violence against the animal is halal, so the speaker must be thinking that sex should also be halal, in a sense. Like, how come the slaughter is halal but what I’m doing to myself, to give myself pleasure to go to sleep or whatever, is not halal, right?
i watched the butcher disassemble the animal from the car
over his head, halal insisted in red coils no wrongdoing
my mother, returning to the driver’s seat, appetited for its glistening liver
the organ in white paper followed us home, where she cubed it into meal
i recalled its size, its flab texture, the bleat
its oil swarmed my mouth like a vow
And then you have the mother in her very own couplet, interrupting it all. Interrupting the slaughter, the violence, interrupting the fantasy, the pleasure—suddenly, you’re completely removed from the fantasy. Your mom jumps in and asks ‘hey, do you want to get this liver?’ And the organ is wrapped in white paper, suggestive of something bridal.
But anyway, I don’t think violence and sexuality are separate. You can have very violent, not pleasant sex in spaces that are not comfortable or tender. That exists. Western perceptions of sex—the sex in movies or music videos—is tender, haughty, controlled. I think, especially if you’re in a conservative space where girls are marrying guys they don’t know well, or when it’s an arranged thing, sex and violence can very much be one and the same. It’s not like there’s intimacy, and then there’s violence. No; there’s intimacy plus violence, especially if you’re queer—you learn to anticipate aggression in regards to your sexuality or in regards to how you’re identifying or existing. So I guess this poem is not bridging sex and violence; it’s making a statement that they can be the same thing. And it’s unfortunate that we’re kind of trying to think of them as separate, because then when we do experience sexual violence or intimate violence. We are in shock, and we wonder how this can happen.
Sara Elkamel: I’m interested in the way you manage to talk about violence without talking about violence, you know? I think your use of devices such as play and figuration, along with loose narrative, all works to create a space that remains other-wordly in its tackling of the worldly. I’m particularly curious about your use of surrealism to talk about very real experiences.
Ghinwa Jawhari: Surrealism serves to depersonalize the body, in the sense that even the speaker can objectify her own body. Saying “I detach my hand” [in the poem “tazahar”] renders the body figurative and distant, so we can ask “What does the hand symbolize?” Here it is alluding to a hand in marriage, but there can be other meanings. I don’t know how much surrealism appears in my work in general, but there’s a sense, in this poem at least, that the bint is suspended, looking at everything around and within her as if for the first time.
what a doll i was those years after the towers
fell. i went blonde as one goes insane, womaned
with a new name, an easy olio for the tongues
that tsk’d me. gone were the guttural
consonants, the hairs connecting my brows.
i starved my hips. i wore english like a ring
until men begged my father for my hand.
i detached my hand & gave it to him, a fishing
lure. a prophet arrived to open the leaves of me.
A sort of war-born surrealism also features in the poem “a girlhood summer passes,” where these girls are hanging out as the war is just going on around them. It closes with them swimming during a ceasefire. But I was in Lebanon in 2006, and that was kind of a reality; whenever there’s a ceasefire, you just go hang out.
Ultimately—I think because I’m working on these longer projects—I am now exploring the magical more. You can use it to say more, without flat out saying: This is wrong. Even though it is [laughs]. But it’s difficult, because if you make it too magical, then it’s completely fictional. And nothing is completely fictional. It has to come from somewhere. I wish I could’ve done more with surrealism in this collection; but the deadline was coming up!
Sara Elkamel: I’m still so impressed that you wrote this entire chapbook in two months!
Ghinwa Jawhari: It’s my ADD. And now I won’t produce anything else for 10 years.
Sara Elkamel: We’ll wait!