INTERVIEW WITH MÓNICA GOMERY
Mónica Gomery is a rabbi and a poet based in Philadelphia. Chosen for the 2021 Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize in Poetry, judged by Kwame Dawes, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and Hilda Raz, her second collection, Might Kindred (University of Nebraska Press, 2022) skillfully interrogates God, queer storytelling, ancestral influences, and more.
FWR: Would you tell us about the book’s journey from the time it won the Prairie Schooner Raz-Shumaker Book Prize to when it was published? In what ways did the manuscript change?
MG: The manuscript didn’t change too much from submission to publication, though it changed a lot as I worked on it in the years prior to submitting it. Kwame Dawes is a very caring editor, and he really gave the poems space to breathe. His edits largely came in the form of questions. They were more about testing to see if I had thought through all of my decisions, guiding me toward consistency. The copy editing at the end was surprisingly tough. I realized how sculptural poetry is for me, how obsessive I am about the shape of poems on the page, and the visual elements of punctuation and lineation. I spent hours making decisions about individual commas – putting them in, taking them out, putting them back in… This was where I felt the finality of the book as an object. I experience a poem almost as a geological phenomenon, a shifting ground that responds to tectonic movement beneath it, a live landscape that moves between liquid and solid. Finalizing the details of these poems meant freezing them into form, and it was hard to let go of their otherwise perpetual malleability.
The last poem to enter the book came really late. I wrote “Because It Is Elul” in the summer of 2021. Right at the last possible moment, I sent Kwame two or three new poems that I was excited about and asked if he thought I could add them. He told me to pick one new poem and add it to the book, and otherwise, to take it easy – that these new poems were for the next collection, and to believe that there would be a next collection. That was a moment of deeply skilled mentorship; his ability to transmit a trust and assurance that this wouldn’t be the end, that we’re always writing toward the next project, the next iteration of who we’re becoming as artists. It meant a lot to hear this from such an incredible and prolific writer. It settled me and helped me feel the book could be complete.
FWR: When did you first start submitting Might Kindred to publishers and contests? I would love to hear about your relationship with rejection and any strategies you may have for navigating it in your writing life.
MG: I started writing the poems in Might Kindred in 2017 and began submitting the manuscript as a whole in 2021. I’m a slow drafter, and it’ll take me years to complete a poem. So too for a manuscript – the process feels extremely messy while I’m in it, but I’ve learned that what’s needed is time, and the willingness to go back to the work and try again. With my first round of rejections, I wondered if I’d compost the entire manuscript and turn to something to new, or if I’d go back in and refine it again. The rejections rolled in, but along with them came just enough encouragement to keep me going – kind reflections from editors, being a finalist multiple times – and then Kwame Dawes called to tell me Might Kindred was accepted by Prairie Schooner for the Raz/Shumaker Prize.
On my better days, I think rejection is not just an inevitable part of the creative process, but a necessary one. Which isn’t to say that I always handle rejection with equanimity. But it has a way of pulling me back to the work with new precision. It generates a desire in me to keep listening to the poem, to learn more about the poem. In some ways, this is the only thing that makes me feel I can submit in the first place – the knowledge that if a poem isn’t quite ready, it’ll come through in the process. It’ll boomerang back for another round of revision. Rejection removes the pressure to be certain that a poem is done.
Jay Deshpande once told me that every morning, a poet wakes up and asks themselves: Am I real? Is what I’m doing real? And that no matter the poet’s accomplishments, the charge behind the question doesn’t change. So, we have to cultivate a relationship to our practice as writers that’s outside of external sources of permission or validation. Jay offered that the poet’s life is a slow, gradual commitment to building relationships with readers – which I understood as an invitation to pace myself and remember to see the long arc of a writing life, as opposed to any singular moment in time that defines one’s “success” as a writer. I try to remember this when I come up against my own urgency to be recognized, or my tenderness around rejection. I want to write for the long haul, so, I have to try and value each small bright moment along the way. Every time I find out that someone who I don’t already know has read one of my poems, my mind is completely blown. Those are the moments when poetry is doing its thing– building community between strangers, reaching across space and time to connect us. And I think that’s what makes us real as poets.
FWR: In “Immigrant Elegy for Avila,” you refer to mountain as a language. You return to the imagery in “God Queers The Mountain”. Would you talk a little about how the mountain came to be a part of your creative life?
MG: Some of it is memory work. As a child, my relationship to Venezuela, when I reach for it in my mind’s eye, had to do with feeling very small in the presence of things that were very large– driving through the valley of El Ávila to get to my grandparents’ houses, swimming in enormous oceans. Since this book reaches back toward those childhood memories, and wonders about being a person from multiple homelands, the mountain started showing up as a recurring presence. The mountain was a teacher, imparting certain truths to me by speaking to me “in a mountain language” that I received, but couldn’t fully translate. This is what it feels like, to me, to be a child of immigrants–– all this transmission of untranslatable material.
Some of it is also collective memory, or mythic memory work. The mountain in “God Queers the Mountain” is Sinai, where the Jewish people received Torah and our covenant with God. That poem seeks to reclaim Mt. Sinai as a site of queer divinity and queer revelation. Similarly, this feels like an experienced truth that’s not easily rendered into English.
On the cover of Might Kindred is a painting by Rithika Merchant, depicting a person’s silhouette with a natural scene inside of them. The scene crests on a hilltop and overlooks the peak of a mountain, painted right there at the heart of the mind. The mountain in the painting is against a thick night sky, full of constellations and a red harvest moon. I can’t tell you how true this painting feels to me. Going back to Mt Sinai for a moment, in Torah it’s the meeting point between earth and heaven, where the divine-human encounter happens. It’s a liminal, transitional space, where each realm can touch the other, and it’s where the people receive their relationship to the divine through language, mediated by text. I love the claim, made by Merchant’s painting, that this meeting point between earth and sky, human and heavenly, however we want to think about, lives within each of our bodies. The possibility of earth touching heaven, and heaven touching earth, these are longings that appear in the collection, played out through language, played out at the peak of the mountain.
FWR: I love that “Prologue” is the eighth poem in the collection. Some poets may have chosen to open the collection with this poem, grounding the reader’s experience with this imagery. What drove your choice of placement? How do you generally go about ordering your poems?
MG: You’re the first person to ask me this, Urvashi, and I always wondered if someone would! Ordering a collection both plagues and delights me. I’m doing it again now, trying to put new poems into an early phase of a manuscript. Lately I’m struggling because every poem feels like it should be the first poem, and the placement of a poem can itself be a volta, moving the book in a new direction. The first handful of poems, maybe the first section, are like a seed– all the charged potential of the book distilled and packed tightly within those opening pages, waiting to be watered and sunned, to bloom and unfold. There’s a lot of world-building that happens at the beginning of a poetry collection, and one of the rules in the world of Might Kindred is the non-linearity of time. By making “Prologue” the eighth poem, I was hoping to set some rules for how time works in the book, and to acknowledge the way a book, like a person, begins again and again.
At one point, I had Might Kindred very neatly divided by subject: a section on Venezuela, a section on Queerness, a section rooted in American cities, a section about my body, etc. I shared it with my friend Sasha Warner-Berry, whose brilliance always makes my books better. She told me, “The poems are good, but the ordering is terrible.” Bless her! I really needed that. Then she said, “You think you need to find subject-based throughlines between your poems, to justify the collection, but the throughline is you. Trust the reader to feel and understand that.” It was a mic drop. I went back to the drawing board, and ordering became an intuitive process: sound-based, sense-based, like composing a musical playlist.
I want to think about the space a reader inhabits at the end of each poem. I want to feel and listen into that silence, tension, or question, and then respond to it, expand upon it, or juxtapose it, with what comes next. I also used some concrete tools. I printed each poem out as a half-pager, so that it was tiny and easy to move around on a floor or wall. I marked and color-coded each poem with core motifs, images, and recurring themes. This helped me pull poems together that spoke to one another, and also to spread out and braid the themes. Similarly, I printed out a table of contents, and annotated it, to have that experience of categorizing poems from a birds-eye-view.
FWR: There are four poems, scattered throughout the book, titled “When My Sister Visits”. These short poems are some of the most elusive and haunting poems in the text. Would you tell us about the journey of writing these linked poems?
MG: These poems began after a visit I’d had with my friend and mentor, Aurora Levins-Morales. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, and I was living in Chicago, where I didn’t have a lot of close people around me. Aurora came to town, and we did what we always do– sit and talk. On this visit, she also showed me around her childhood neighborhood in Chicago, including the house she’d lived in as a teenager, and the streets she’d walked as a young feminist, activist, and poet. It was a very nourishing visit, and afterward when I sat down to write, the first words that came to me were, “When my sister visits…” This was interesting because Aurora isn’t my sister. She’s my elder, teacher, and friend, so I knew something about the word sister was working in a different way for me, almost as a verb. What does it mean to be sistered by someone or something? This question came up recently in a reading I did with Raena Shirali. Beforehand, we both noticed the recurring presence of sisters in one another’s books, and we deliciously confessed to each other over a pre-reading drink that neither one of us has a biological sister. The word sister has a charge to it, I think especially for women.
At first, I wrote one long poem, excavating the presence of a shadow sister in my life who appears to accompany me and reflect parts of myself back to me, especially parts of me that I think shouldn’t be seen or given voice to. This sister embodies my contradictions, she asks hard questions. I was drawn to writing about her, somehow through that visit with Aurora, in which I felt that I belonged with someone, but that the belonging was fraught, or pointed me back to my own fraughtness.
This poem was published in Ninth Letter in the winter of 2020, under the title “Visit,” and I thought it was finished! Later, I worked with Shira Erlichman on revising the poems that became Might Kindred. Shira invited me to return to seemingly completed poems and crack them open in new ways. Shira’s amazing at encouraging writers to stay surprised. It’s very humbling and generative to work with her. So, I chopped the original sister poem up into smaller poems and kept writing new ones… Shira advised me to write fifty! This gave me the freedom to approach them as vignettes, which feels truer to my experience of this sister in my life– she comes and goes, shows up when she wants to. She’s a border-crosser and a traverser of continents, she speaks in enigma and gets under my skin, into my clothes and hair. Bringing her into the book as a character felt more accurate when this poem became a series of smaller poems, each one almost a puzzle or a riddle.
FWR: Ancestors, especially grandmothers, have a powerful presence in these poems. What did you discover in the course of writing these poems? What made you return to these characters over and over?
MG: In Hebrew, the words av and em mean father and mother, and also originator, ancestor, author, teacher. The word for “relation” is a constellation of relationships, which expands the way we might think about our origins. This helps me find an inherent queerness at work in the language of family– how many different ways we may be ancestored by others. And at the core of their etymology, both words mean to embrace, to press, to join. I love this image of what an ancestor is: one who embraces us, envelopes or surrounds us, those whose presences are pressed up against us. We are composite selves, and I think I’m often reaching for the trace of those pressed up against me in my writing.
Might Kindred is driven by a longing for connection. Because the book is an exploration of belonging, and the complexity of belonging in my own life, ancestors play a vital role. There are ancestral relationships in the book that help the speaker anchor into who she is and who and what she belongs to, and there are ancestral relationships in the book that are sites of silence, uncertainty, and mystery, which unmoor and complicate the possibility to belong.
Also, belonging is a shifting terrain. I wrote Might Kindred while my grandmother was turning 98, 99, then 100, then 101. In those years, I was coming to accept that I would eventually have to grieve her. I think there was an anticipatory grieving I started to do through the poems in this book. My grandmother was the last of her generation in my family, she was the keeper of memories and languages, the bridge from continent to continent, the many homes we’ve migrated between. Writing the book was a way of saying goodbye to her and to the worlds she held open for me. There are many things I say in the pages of Might Kindred, addressed to my grandmother, that I couldn’t say to her in life. I wasn’t able to come out to her while she was alive, and in some ways the book is my love letter to her. The queerness, the devotion, the longing for integration, the scenes from her past, our shared past, the way it’s all woven together… maybe it’s a way of saying: I am of you, and the obstacles the world put between us don’t get the final word.
Lastly, I’ll just say, there are so many ways to write toward our ancestors. For me, there’s a tenderness, a reverence, and an intimacy that some of these poems take on, but there’s also tension and resistance. Some of the poems in the book are grappling with the legacies of assimilation to whiteness that have shaped my family across multiple journeys of immigration – from Eastern Europe to Latin America, from Latin America to the US. I harbor anger, shame, heartbreak, disappointment, confusion, and curiosity about these legacies, and poetry has been a place where I can make inquiries into that whole cocktail, where I can ask my ancestors questions, talk back to them, assert my hopes for a different future.
FWR: Three of your newer poems appear in Issue 25 of Four Way Review and I am intrigued by the ways in which there’s been this palpable evolution since Might Kindred. Is that how you see it too, that you’re writing from a slightly different place, in a slightly altered register?
MG: Yes, I do think there’s a shift in register, though I’d love to hear more about it from your perspective! I know something of what’s going on with my new writing, but I’m also too telescoped into it to really see what’s really happening.
I can definitely feel that the first poem, “Consider the Womb,” is in a different register. It’s less narrative, equally personal but differently positioned, it’s exploring the way a poem can make an argument, which has a more formal tone, and is newer terrain for me. It uses borrowed texts, research and quotations as a lens or screen through which to ask questions. I’m interested in weaving my influences onto the page more transparently as I write new poems. This poem is also more dreamlike, born from the surreal. It’s holding questions about the body, generativity, gender roles and tradition, blood, birth and death, the choice to parent or not. I think the poem is trying to balance vulnerability with distance, the deeply personal with the slightly detached. Something about that balance is allowing me to explore these topics right now.
The other two poems take on major life milestones: grieving a loss and getting married. I’m thinking of some notes I have from a workshop taught by Ilya Kaminsky – “the role of poetry is to name things as if for the first time.” Loss and marriage… people have been writing poems about them for thousands of years! But metabolizing these experiences through poetry gives me the chance to render them new, to push the language through my own strange, personal, subjective funnel. Kaminsky again: “The project of empire is the normative. The project of poetry is the non- normative.” There are so many normative ways to tell these stories. Ways to think about marriage and death that do nothing to push against empire. I think my intention with these two poems was not to take language for granted as I put them onto the page.
FWR: Is there a writing prompt or exercise that you find yourself returning to? What is a prompt you would offer to other poets?
MG: I once learned from listening to David Naimon’s podcast Between the Covers about a writing exercise Brandon Shimoda leads when teaching, and it’s stayed with me as a favorite prompt. He would have his class generate 30 to 50 questions they wanted to ask their ancestors, and go around sharing them aloud, one question at a time, “Until it felt like the table was spinning, buoyed by the energy of each question, and the accumulation of all the questions.”
As you pointed out, writing with, toward, and even through, my ancestors, is a theme of Might Kindred, and I think it’s one of the alchemical transformations of time and space that poetry makes possible. I love Shimoda’s process of listing questions to ancestors, which feels both like a writing exercise and a ritual. It draws out the writer’s individual voice, and also conjures the presence of other voices in the room.
I’ve used this exercise when teaching, credited to Shimoda, and have added a second round– which I don’t know if he’d endorse, so I want to be clear that it’s my addition to his process– which is to go around again, students generating a second list of questions, in response to, “What questions do your ancestors have for you?” I’m interested in both speaking to our ancestors and hearing them speak to us, especially mediated through questions, which can so beautifully account for those unfillable gaps we encounter when we try to communicate with the dead.
In Might Kindred, there’s a poem called “Letter to Myself from My Great Grandmother” that was born from this kind of process. It’s in my ancestor’s voice, and she’s asking questions to me, her descendent. My book shared a pub day with Franny Choi’s The World Keeps Ending, and the World Goes On, which I think is an astonishing collection. In it, she has a poem called “Dispatches from a Future Great-Great-Granddaughter.” In the poem she’s made herself the ancestor, and she’s receiving a letter, not from the past but from the future, questions addressed to her by her future descendent. I’m in awe of this poem. She models how ancestor writing can engage both the future and the past, and locate us in different positions– as descendent, ancestor, as source or recipient of questions. The poem contains so many powerful renderings and observations of the world we live in now– systems, patterns, failings, attempts. She could have articulated all of these in a poem speaking from the present moment, in her own present voice. But by positioning her writing voice in the future, she creates new possibilities, and as a reader, I’m able to reflect on the present moment differently. I feel new of kinds of clarity, compassion, and heartbreak, reading toward myself from the future.
These are the questions I return to, that I’d offer other writers: Think of an ancestor. What’s one question you have for them? What’s one question they have for you? Start listing, and keep going until you hit fifteen, thirty, or fifty. Once you have a list, circle one question, and let it be the starting point for a poem. Or, grab five, then fill in two lines of new text between each one. Just write with your questions in whatever way you feel called to.
FWR: Who are some of your artistic influences at the moment? In what ways are they shaping your creative thoughts and energy?
MG: Right now, I’m feeling nourished by writers who explore the porous borders between faith and poetry, and whose spiritual or religious traditions are woven through their writing in content and form. Edmond Jabés is a beacon, for the way he gave himself permission to play with ancient texts, to reconstruct them and drop new voices into old forms – his Book of Questions is one I return to again and again. I love how he almost sneaks his way back into the Jewish canon, as though his poems were pseudepigraphic, as though he’s claiming his 20th century imagined rabbis are actually excavated from somewhere around the second or third centuries of Jewish antiquity. I’ll never stop learning from his work.
Other writers along these lines who are inspiring me right now include Leila Chatti, Alicia Ostriker, Alicia Jo Rabins, Dujie Tahat, Eve Grubin, and Mohja Khaf. Kaveh Akbar, both for his own poems and for his editorial work on The Penguin Book of Spiritual Verse. Joy Ladin, whose writing is a guidelight for me. Rilke, for his relentless attempts to seek the unlanguageable divine with the instrument of language. I’m trying to write on the continuum between ancient inherited texts and contemporary poetry. These writers seem to live and create along that continuum.
I’m also reading Leora Fridman’s new collection of essays, Static Palace, and Raena Shirali’s new book of poems, Summonings. Both books merge the lyrical with the rigor of research; both are books that return me to questions of precision, transparency, and a politicized interrogation of the self through writing. On a different note, I’m thinking a lot these days about how to open up “mothering,” as a verb, to the multitude of ways one might caretake, tend, create, and teach in the world. As I do that, I return to the poems of Ada Limón, Marie Howe, and Ama Codjoe. And lastly, I’m trading work-in-progress with my friends and writing siblings. On a good day, it’s their language echoing around in my head. Right now, this includes Rage Hezekiah, Sally Badawi, emet ezell, and Tessa Micaela, among others. This is the biggest gift – the language of my beloveds doing its work on me.