FWR: I would like to start out by first asking about what it’s like to be publishing your first full collection of poetry? What was the process of writing and assembling like in comparison to the publication of your earlier chapbooks?
WL: My urge in assembling manuscripts is always to pare down. Because of this impulse, assembling my chapbooks felt like a much clearer and more straightforward process. For the manuscript that became Conversation Among Stones, I struggled with holding it in its entirety in my mind and had to be more deliberate in my approach. I understood how certain constellations of poems fit together but was a bit overwhelmed with shaping the manuscript as a whole. At one point, I actually made a spreadsheet of all the poems that I thought might belong in the book and notated and ordered them according to a few different axes to help me see how they might fit together.
FWR: Your title, “Conversation Among Stones” brings up questions of action between the inanimate. What inspired you to frame your collection under this title?
WL: That idea is definitely part of what I had hoped to evoke with the title—of speaking to the inanimate and what can’t or refuses to speak back, of language spanning, filling, straining, or distending across gaps, of failing to say or hear what matters. I think these intimations are a good way of entering the book, which I hope worries and enacts some of these concerns regarding the capacities and limitations of language.
FWR: My next question is in regards to the variations of length in the poems. In “Dear,” which is only two lines, you write “A knife pares to learn what is flesh. / What is flesh.” Both a statement and a question, you ask the reader to consider something so simple, yet laden with ideas regarding the body and violence. What was your process in developing these shorter pieces, and how do you see them functioning within the broader collection?
WL: Poems can beguile in so many ways, but I’ve always loved the compactness of a short poem. Part of it is how easy it is to carry them with you in their entirety and turn them over in your mind. Since I first came across Issa’s “This world of dew / is a world of dew. / And yet… and yet…” in a poetry class almost 20 years ago, I’ve been able to carry it with me. I’ve learned and forgotten countless things in poems and in life in the ensuing years, but have kept that poem almost unconsciously, without effort. Another aspect of short poems’ appeal to me is the paradoxical way time works in them. A short poem’s effect feels almost instantaneous because of its brevity but time also dilates across its lines. The duration seems somehow mismatched with the time it takes to run your eyes along the text. In Lucille Clifton’s “why some people be mad at me sometimes,” the body of the poem answers the charge of the title in five short lines:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
That last one-word, monosyllabic line, especially, seems to take forever to conclude. The compression of the poem—the words under pressure from the wide sweep of white space—exerts a redoubled, outward pressure and reverberates.
My poem “Dear” started as a longer poem (not longer by much, maybe 10 lines or so). At one point, as an experiment, I took out all the “I” statements in the poem and arrived at the version that exists now. Often, that’s how it works. I try different approaches and revise, sometimes rashly and foolishly, until something jostles loose. When I finally got to the two-line version of “Dear,” for me, the fragmentary nature of it fit with the precarity of its assertion and question. How the shorter poems appear on the page also matters in that I wanted the blank expanse that follows the poem to function as an extended breath. Because the book proceeds with no section breaks, it made sense to me to vary the lengths and movements of the poems to establish a kind of cadence, a push-and-pull.
FWR: In thinking about the themes that circulate throughout your work, a couple of specific ideas stand out as particularly potent. One is the issue of memory; the violence, complexities, and confusion of your past run their threads throughout the collection. In “The Vocation,” you write, “In the year I learned / to cease writing about history / in the present tense, / I was the silence of chalk dust, / of brothers.”
It seems like history, for the speaker, is something to be dealt with, instead of accepted unquestioningly. What does writing about the past, be it in present tense or not, do for you as an individual? Does confronting the past through writing work as a catharsis, a way to process, or does it instead serve as a conduit to expanding upon the ideas you wish to convey?
WL: I think memory—and the process of remembering—is an engine for understanding and, by extension, meaning. For experience to make sense, we have to remember. Knowing or thinking can’t really be separated from experience. It’s also true that memory, personal and communal, is restless and malleable. I have an image of the past as a landscape of sand dunes. The shapes drift. They slip, they resettle. How things feel in the moment can be one kind of understanding, how we remember them, how they shift, linger, rise, how they appear in the context of things that have happened since or what we do not yet know are other kinds.
In Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay,” when challenged on why she remembers “too much”—“Why hold onto all that?”—the speaker responds, “Where can I put it down?” I suppose poetry for me is one place to put it down. (Though I don’t think I could be accused of remembering too much in life. I have a terrible memory.) In writing a poem, I’m making a deliberate attempt toward an understanding, however provisional. Poems are good spaces for holding and turning, for thinking through and imagining, for venturing out—and that is the final, extravagant goal, to reach out and connect with someone else. In my poems, I want to make a path that leads inward to the center—and out.
FWR: In that same poem, you confront another central theme: men. When you mention men, they are typically described via their participation in fatherhood or brotherhood. You write, “the men/slammed the table when they laughed/at their circumstance, or drank/too much to learn what it meant/to have a brother, or were true to/no end, or tried to love their fathers/before they disappeared into/hagiography.”
Masculinity here seems to be defined as a relational identity, one that is constituted by lineage and socialization. I would love to hear you speak on your relationship with gender norms and roles, especially in your writing.
WL: This question is particularly fascinating because I can’t say I conceived of my poems working together in this way, even though of course you’re right to point to how often these types of familial terms come up. I suppose part of the answer has to be how the poems relate to my autobiography. In my family, my mother is the only woman in her generation. She has two brothers and my father has two brothers. I’m also the only woman in my generation. I have three cousins, all men. I’m an only child who grew up in China during the one-child policy, so all around me were lots of children just like me, who’ll never know what it means to have a sibling. I felt a bit of an outsider’s fascination with those types of relationships and inheritances, especially as I got older and became more aware of the other social forces at work that historically favored sons. I think poetry can function partly as personal interventions in cultural history and memory, holding the ambivalences, contradictions, and idiosyncrasies that live at those intersections.
FWR: We see many instances of place in relation to memory, but there are only a few instances in which those locations are given a specific name, such as in “Teleology” when you mention Nebraska. Can you walk us through your approach to location in your work and what places need an identifier, versus places that can exist more specifically within the speaker’s domain of recollection?
WL: I think generally the idea of dislocation is more important than the locations themselves in terms of how they function in the poems. Saying the name of a place evinces a kind of ownership of or intimacy with that place. For many of the poems, in not naming specific locations, I more so wanted to evoke a sense of rootlessness and for the intimacy to be with the speaker’s uneasiness within or distance from those places. “Nebraska” in “Teleology” is a departure from that model not only because it offers a specific name but also because I think in this instance Nebraska is not a real place but an imagined one—a kind of projection that stands in for other things (the poem says, “like Nebraska,” “many Nebraskas,” “Nebraska is a little funeral”—my apologies to the real Nebraska!).
FWR: In “Dream with Omen,” you end the piece with “I would like to rest now / with my head in a warm lap.” This is one of my favorite lines, because it both speaks to the sound and feel of this collection, and it interrogates the two balancing aspects of this collection: that of memory and the mind, and that of the physical present. The speaker in many of your pieces seems to be constantly grappling with the subconscious world, made alive by dreams. How do you view or negotiate the separation and/or melding of the subconscious and the “real” world? Does the mind and its preoccupation with the past stop the self from fully engaging in the present? Can the speaker rest in a warm lap and still accept the darkness of the subconscious?
WL: In putting together this book, I became conscious of how often I write about dreaming and/or sleeping. I felt sheepish both because we are told often (as writers and as people) that dreams are boring and because maybe these poems betray my personal tendency toward indolence.
It’s interesting to align the past with the subconscious and the present with the “real” as you do in the question. I do feel the tension between those things in writing even as I also feel that thoughts are real and fears are real, etc., just as senses—how we experience the physical world—are real. And it feels a little silly to say this but I have a kind of faith that our subconscious is working away trying to help us come to terms with what occupies us in the real, present world even as we sleep and dream. Everyone who writes has at times had that sense that what they are writing is received, as if they are tapping into some other world or force. Maybe that idea is analogous to what I mean.
Memories, dreams, the subconscious, however the particularities of the mind manifest, feel consequential in their bearing on lived experience—they are how the real world lives in us. There is no unmediated world. Or if there is, we don’t know it. We must encounter the world personally because we are people. All this is to say I’m still learning line-to-line, poem-to-poem how best to articulate that kind of interiority in a meaningful way, without leaving the reader adrift. Leaning on dreams can make a poem feel muted and entering memories can feel like putting on the heaviness of a wet wool sweater and those things do not always serve the poem. I hope for my poems’ sake that I get that balance right more often than not.
Willie Lin was interviewed for Four Way Review by Simone Menard-Irvine.
Simone Menard-Irvine is a poet from Brooklyn, New York currently pursuing and English degree at Smith College. Her work has been published in HOBART and Emulate magazine.
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.
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.
Kyle Dargan is the author of five collections of poetry: Anagnorisis (TriQuarterly/Northwestern UP, 2018). Honest Engine (University of Georgia Press, 2015), Logorrhea Dementia (University of Georgia Press, 2010), Bouquet of Hungers (University of Georgia Press, 2007) and The Listening (University of Georgia Press, 2003). He is the recipient of the Cave Canem Poetry Prize, and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award. He lives in Washington, D.C., where he works, writes, and edits POST NO ILLS Magazine. Originally from Newark, New Jersey, Dargan is a graduate of Saint Benedict’s Prep, The University of Virginia, and Indiana University.
FWR: “Anagnorisis” is the moment in a tragedy where a character realizes his or her (or another’s) true nature. I was struck that your poems consider not only your realization of yourself, but also your realization of America, and what America thinks it knows about you. The first section of Cornelius Eady’s Brutal Imagination came to mind as a possible influence, but I wonder what other works you turned to in the shaping of this manuscript.
Along that thought, you’ve said that this is a work expressing “the freedom of speak”. Can we hope that America, the idea with the capital A, is listening?
KD: I appreciate your picking up on the multiple “recognition” moments throughout the text. I know the term anagnorisis leads one to look for one such moment, but the idea is at play in different parts of the book’s journey. If I can interpret text loosely enough to include more than books, I would definitely say Solange Knowles’ album SEAT AT THE TABLE (which was, interesting enough, inspired in part by Claudia Rankine’s CITIZEN). Whether or not America is listening doesn’t matter. I had to accept, as did Solange, that making art that clearly and unabashed depicts blk disdain and exhaustion –– and not as a function of either rage or woundedness –– will likely not be embraced by the popular critical and awards entities. (The lack of critical acknowledgement for A SEAT AT THE TABLE remains egregious to me.) But you have to do that sometimes to move the popular American consciousness towards being open to and able to process righteous, necessary and crisply articulated blk indignation. Or even just the belief that “white” America is not doing the best job at exorcising its own demons. This is not a book that was in my existing creative plan, and some days it really does feel like a “service” to me –– one that I am more likely to get tacitly maligned for by the artistic gatekeeping class.
FWR: In structuring the manuscript, how did you find balance between shorter and longer works? You’ve said that this wasn’t a ‘planned’ manuscript, like your other books had been. At what point did you realize what you had could, and needed, to stand on its own?
KD: Well, there was a point where I thought “In 2016, the African-American Poet Kyle Dargan Is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” was the centerpiece of the manuscript (that was probably more of an emotional truth than a craft truth). So I knew that piece –– running about six pages –– needed space to function, somewhat as “Always a Rose” does in the center of Li-Young Lee’s ROSE. That aside, though, these poems are, on average, a lot longer than the poems in my previous four collections. I think that is related to my push towards a new depth of candor in my voice. There is a relentlessness to the opening section –– a weight –– that I wanted to be unavoidable, to go back to that idea of “training” readers’ consciousness. You have to deal with the first section just as I, and many other people of color, have had to live it over the past five years. I do let in more “air” as the book/journey progresses.
FWR: The “China Cycle” poems seemed to serve two purposes. The preceding poems were cast in a new light, as the speaker (and audience) consider the way both China and the United States are continually editing and creating the myths and history of each nation, while also establishing a new angle on the succeeding poems by bringing in more fully concerns of humanity’s impact on the natural world. When you wrote those poems, had you envisioned them as their own manuscript? If not, what was the act of joining them with the rest of poems like?
KD: There was a lot about my travels to China that, until recently, I was still processing. Even just the decision to write things that I would potentially publish, for as much as I am extremely appreciative of how I was hosted and treated as an American by the Chinese Writers Association (which is an arm of the ruling Communist party), I also was very aware of how the government was surveilling and detaining their own dissident writers and artists. To not say anything felt disrespectful to those silenced writers, and to speak candidly felt disrespectful to those who’d hosted me. But once I got over that, it was clear that China was the “bridge” for me and the book. It was both the place I escaped to in a psychically trying time as a blk American, and the place that showed me my American privilege and my inability to escape global colorism and its political ramifications. So what you stated about the “reconsidering” those poems encourage in the manuscript, that is exactly what I experienced in thinking about and having to explain my life in America to others as I traveled abroad.
FWR: Within the “China Cycle”, the idea of being ‘other’ takes on new meaning. While a poem like “A Progressive Mile” points with one hand to the act of being visibly a “dark/spectacle” in China, it also recalls the lines “I’m still trying to buy/ the same stitch of citizenship/ you take for granted” from “In 2016, The African-American Poet Kyle Dargan is Asked to Consider Writing More Like the African-American Poet Ross Gay” or “I think of race as something akin to climate change, / a force we don’t have to believe in for it to undo us” from “Daily Conscription”.
How do you see your poems speaking to the role of “the other” and the act of being made visible or invisible?
KD: So I honestly think that writing about feeling racially othered in a general way has reached the limits of its rhetorical usefulness. (And I may be totally off in thinking that.) There are many experiences of otherness from China I did not bother to attempt to render as poetry because, am I wrong, of course in 2018 the reality of a blk man in Tianjin China who speaks a little Mandarin is going to register as an oddity. What is more interesting to me at the moment is not what the “other” feels but what desires and anxieties fuel the actions of those doing the othering. That is what is happening at the end of “Progressive Mile.” It is quasi erotic, or maybe fetishistic the way in which he is staring at me. And only he really knows what’s up, so how do I get in there –– into his head? That is what I am examining now. I’d say that dynamic is true domestically as well.
FWR: Thinking of the performance of the body, I was struck by your use and manipulation of pop culture references, such as the opening epigram to “Dark Humor”, which quotes Richard Pryor, or “Avenger”, when you write:
Somewhere is the negro’s imagined America,
where we have Iron Man on our side,
though it does not matter if the hero is “black”
so long as the body inside is.
That poem, in particular, which contains Ferguson, Obama, and Tony Stark, struck me as an attempt to answer the multiple ways people of color are called upon to adjust to the expectations of whiteness, without the release that whiteness grants itself. Would you be able to speak further to this?
KD: Well, it is really an imagined Eric Holder cast as a Tony Stark figure, but yes. I think the sentiment you mention is present in that poem, but I think it is more –– or more interestingly to me –– present in “Poem Resisting Arrest.” I remember when I showed the book to a mentor, one not raised in America, he did not understand the poem because he could not identify the resistance, but that is the point. That blk people bend themselves backwards often to avoid abuse by the police, wind up abused or even dead, and are then further abused or criticized for asking why they have suffered this fate. (“Why” is one of the most dangerous questions a blk person can ask an officer.) But I think that goes back to Iron Man and the “negro’s imagined America.” Even there, the police, the State, is too corrupt to be imagined as a benevolent force so it has to be a superhero that fulfills the duty the State should fulfill –– i.e. protecting the innocent.
FWR: I know you teach writing across several genres. How does that influence your own writing?
KD: I think of myself as a learned unlearner, which puts me in a weird position as a teacher in the creative writing classroom. I think my way into craft through martial arts because I appreciate the clarity of high stakes arts (i.e. in some instances you live or you die depending on your craft decisions). That is, I believe, actually freeing because if your main goal is to fight to live, your cannot be stiffly, strictly beholden to styles and forms. It is the ability to transition between forms as needed which lead to success. Because, as they say in NARUTO, every jutsu (technique) has a weakness. So I teach, as Bruce Lee suggests, not knowledge of form but lived performance of fluidity. And I think that is something that one models more than one teaches to others. Thus I need to be continually striving for that –– and getting freer in my necessary formal transitions –– in my own work. One of my former students wrote me to say that reading ANAGNORISIS was like taking an intensive on lineation / line breaks. While flattered, what I really hope they see are the ways I am trying (and failing and trying) to achieve more effective fluidity when it comes to form.
FWR: Is there a poet (or poems) you love to teach or share?
KD: I’d say, to the above idea of moving as freely or as purely as the poem needs, pieces like Lucille Clifton’s “Won’t You Celebrate with Me” or Larry Levis’ “Picking Grapes in an Abandoned Vineyard” or Etheridge Knight’s “Belly Song.” There is really little for me to even teach with those works. You just need to internalize them and allow them to inform your own instinct.
FWR: (this is purely a NJ question, as someone else from that great, maligned place that I’ll never live in): Can we call Walt Whitman a New Jersey poet, as we’ve named a rest stop in his honor?
KD: I don’t think any one place can comfortably or wholly claim Mr. Multitudes. (The bridge even is operated by the Delaware River Port Authority––a Delaware/Jersey collaboration. And Jersey’s turnpike is one of its most hated aspects, so I don’t know how much of an honor the rest stop is.) Maybe Brooklyn can. And D.C. I’d rather New Jersey reconcile its relationship to Amiri Baraka than make space for Whitman. I think that is the problem, poetically with Jersey––and why so many of us don’t or cannot go back: it is often looking elsewhere for the genius when it is already right there going ignored in its own garden.
Darling Nova, Melissa Cundieff’s full-length debut, won the 2017 Autumn House poetry prize. She earned her MFA in poetry from Vanderbilt University, where she received an Academy of American Poets Prize. Her poem Hurt Music was published in Issue 10.
FWR: Your poems seem to be interested in the limits and constraints of language, whether the closing stanzas of “Paradox” –– “when the heart is just a lonely muscle/and language/just a tongue not knowing, not even touching/another tongue” –– or “In Media Res” –– “I once imagined my life differently/ but no one hears, so I say it again, and again/ until the words turn to ice, clear and contained”. These seem to speak to the desire of many women (myself included) to be heard, to feel as if their voices matter. Could you expand on this?
MC: I think of language as the holiest muscle, because it enacts and performs transformation — private, political, creative. That no one is necessarily listening, though, is an important reality. It’s important to remember that I’m sometimes my only company. And I don’t mean to sound severe, but I suspect this is so important because when something needs to change, when it’s truly time, the words to start that change must be heard. They should be as plain as still objects on a table.
FWR: I’m struck by how the places you describe in your poems then informs the conversation about each poem. “Romance at the Abandoned Mine”, for instance, enacts the echoing of tunnels (and the lines “Sometimes, even God wants to say yes/ before he says no” have reverberated in me for weeks). How does place influence your work?
MC: I think the God line I wrote in “Romance at the Abandoned Mine” tries to speak to the ethics of wanting to not only linger in a relationship or a meaningful sexual experience, but to also linger in the earthly place where it took place. I wonder if some version of myself and of that person I was with are still there, continuing on. I hope so, because we were happy, and we didn’t yet know what would happen to us.
So, place influences my work because of whatever my experience of it was. I think place or landscape serve as our most significant hauntings — in particular, the specifics of the light or the air do. Perhaps my most complicated grief is the one I feel for my childhood home. Not for my childhood but my childhood home. I like to imagine that it still exists exactly as it once did, and I’m there, inside my own life’s prologue, and my young mother and father are as well, and we’re all immortal in our orange kitchen, Winston cigarette air, encased by the greenery and wet air of Irving, Texas. I wonder if that house, which still stands but I’m sure no longer resembles the interior of my childhood home, is as haunted by me and my young, beautiful parents as I am by it. It certainly wasn’t always a perfect place, but its walls mean to me that I was born and ferried first via a car and then by my mother’s arms to the rooms that would shelter me for eighteen years – which is not everything, but it is profoundly mysterious and somewhat excruciating, especially now that I’ve grown older and made many mistakes, now that my mother’s bones hurt her and my father will die soon, now that I have children who live inside their own childhoods.
FWR: Several poems are elegiac, particularly “Remainder”, while still resisting any attempt to aggrandize or idolize a loss. Matt Rasmussen’s collection Black Aperture comes to mind, but did you look to other poems or poets for guidance on those poems?
MC: I admire Matt Rasmussen’s Black Aperture very much. It’s a beautiful book. Proper elegies are foundational to me; I think a lot about death and its metaphors. And you’re right, I try not to idolize loss. I do try to talk to my disappeared. I try to impart that I survey what’s left behind and sometimes feel consumed by it. Larry Levis is a person I turn to when I write those poems. I don’t understand how he wrote the poems he did. Each and every one of them is of another world. The way he travels so distantly to return to something as bare and reduced as, “My father is beginning to die. Something/ Inside him is slowly taking back/ Every word it ever gave him” (from “Winter Stars”). His poems taught me to (try to) push language into the tall weeds, to borrow its limitlessness, but they also taught me to exhale (inside a poem) — those moments that floodlight the inflexible truth that some of us are alive and some of us are not.
Larry Levis’s Elegies and the poems for his father in Winter Stars don’t only grieve the dead or dying but make something like primordial leaps to communicate with and through them. I try to do the same — it’s a way of not idolizing loss and death but certainly a way of confronting it and even giving it a heartbeat. But yeah, it’s consuming work, a consuming process, to stare at a landscape emptying itself of the people we love. The quiet, exhaustive energy that goes into doing so needs to be communicated and offered up like a currency.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you work with the mutability of time, such as the poem “The Conqueror, 1956″, or “Burning Hair”. To me, the folding and play of time reinforce the destruction and creation associated with cycles: “when the vase breaks against the driveway the shards will reflect the blue/ scattered eye that sees clearly when one thing shatters into many”.
I was hoping you might speak further to this?
MC: Forgive me for quoting the musician Joanna Newsom now when the epigraph to my book is also a Joanna Newsom song lyric, but: stand brave/time moves both ways (from “Time, As a Symptom”). I guess I think of time as a thing that we must intellectually, physically, and creatively endure, and, like Newsom suggests, that endurance involves courage.
Maybe more significant to me, though, is memory as the fruition and uniquely private demonstration of time, and what I think requires (almost parasitically!) fortitude. I think this because it makes us feel and confront very potently our lives thus far lived. Nostalgia, too, is powerful in its great difficulty to be stymied, and it’s through nostalgia and memory (to my mind) that “time moves both ways.”
Memory, in this case my memories of childhood, is wonderful and vivid though not without trauma. Memory, more so than time, reminds me simply that time is passing. And we all know what that leads to. So, when I allow myself to sink into remembering, it’s a way of confronting the past and future, my beginning and then my end — whatever that will be, whenever it happens. And maybe memory isn’t a parasite, maybe I’m a parasite to it. I think it must be one or other though, right? All that energy of remembering or being remembered must drain from a great source.
Furthermore, memory isn’t even remotely reliable; it both guards and abandons the past; it entails multiple versions of and revises what has and has not exactly happened; its nature is to be both vivid and scattered; it always enters the room with a knife in its teeth. It’s so fractured and multitudinous that I often feel consumed by it, and so writing about memory requires writing about time, as well. Drawing often unexpected connections between the past, present, and future is to exist in all directions, is to both create and destroy our own ghosts, is to make living memories, which is what I hope my poems partly are.
FWR: Is there a poem you love to teach or share?
MC: To name a few: Adrienne Rich’s “Power”, Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s “Salvation”, Trey Moody’s “Dream with Gun and Five-Year-Old Daughter”, Hayan Charara’s “Mother and Daughter”, Norman Dubie’s “Oration: Half-Moon in Vermont”, Roger Reeve’s “Cymothoa Exigua”, Ocean Vuong’s “Aubade with Burning City”, and Cara Dees’ “Vigil Hemming In”.
Born and raised in Detroit, Tommye Blount now calls Novi home. A graduate from Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, he has been the recipient of fellowships and scholarships from Cave Canem and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. His work can be found in various journals and anthologies. His full-length collection is forthcoming from Four Way Books.
FWR: How do you protect your time and foster your writing?
TB: Like many poets now, and throughout history, I work a demanding weekday job, so writing can sometimes feel nearly impossible for me. With that said, I do dedicate early Saturday and Sunday mornings (or any off days) as “writing” time. Writing is in quotes, because in these sessions, I make no promises to myself that I have to write anything at all—and, to be frank, sometimes I don’t write. There may be times where I do nothing but read essays or books by other poets or fiction writers. (Oh! One of my obsessions as of late are essays on fashion—have you read The Battle of Versailles by Robin Givhan?) If you were to pop in on me, you might even see me looking at YouTube videos of other artists—either performing or talking about their disciplines. Where I am getting at is this: the act of writing for me encompasses a lot more than the physical act of writing.
Right now, I am in New York for a theater run—something I do often. Yes, I am gaga over musicals and plays, and get gooseflesh anytime someone starts talking about Audra McDonald, but all of this too is a part of my process. Watching other artistic disciplines feeds me. Not so much the subject matter of their work—although that is fair game for me as well—but I am more interested in their materials. For the past couple of years, I have been going to Stratford, Ontario, home of the Stratford Shakespearean Festival. Here, the plays and musicals are performed in repertory—so many shows are going on at once. You will see one actor playing two, or three, different roles in different shows. I love this, because to me, and my poet brain, it always leads me to rhyme and the shapes of rhyme. When I am watching occurrences like this happening, something seemingly minor to most of the audience, I am thinking how can I translate this into a poem. Of course, I can’t ever pull it off when I mean to pull it off—I’m too slow for that. Ha! It takes a while for the idea to sink into my body and, it always seems, out of nowhere I pull it off without thinking about it—or maybe I am thinking about it? I don’t know.
FWR: I’m struck by this image of actors playing multiple rows in multiple shows. It makes me think of the moving between forms and personas, how the self can be fractured and recast (in a poem like “The Bug”, for instance).
TB: Bifurcation is a frequent kind of transformation that takes place in my work. Many of my poems are in first person singular, so I often challenge myself to see what happens when that gets split off into two entities sharing the same space. “The Bug” complicates the first person by allowing that other man to speak through him halfway through the poem. What better way to explore a kind of love than through possession? And going back to your mention of form—in my chapbook there are many received forms that resist the conventions of those forms. These too act as a kind of fracture and recast, but moreover it goes back to my love of bodily transformation and how that allows me to divorce a body from its intent.
FWR: Can you speak further to finding inspiration in different art forms? (and considering those explorations part of the act of writing!)
TB: Of course, as writers we should first be lovers of reading, but other art forms too have much to teach us. In 2017, I was one of 18 recipients of a Kresge Arts in Detroit fellowship. Each year, there are two groups of nine artists chosen from two rotating categories. This time around the categories are Literary and Visual Arts, but everyone is doing all kinds of work: art criticism, sculpture, mural painting, collage, quilting, dance, and more. The fellowship comes with a pretty large amount of money with no-strings-attached, but that has not been the highlight of my tenure. The best part has been getting to dig into the work of the other fellows and, in one case, getting to sit in on a session. I just think writers limit themselves if they are only looking toward their own discipline for techniques or new ways of thinking about stuff. The dancer/choreographer Bill T. Jones teaches me just as much as the poet Carl Phillips.
FWR: I’m drawn to the way you play with syntax in many of your poems (“The Black Umbrella”, for example). It seems to not only allow for a reveal and revision of information, but also to suggest greater possibility in the memory of a poem. Along the lines of structure, I’d love to hear what you were thinking while arranging this manuscript. How did you decide when to echo back to a previous poem or image, or when to expand upon an idea?
TB: Matthew Olzmann, the killer poet and a dear friend of mine, was—thank goodness—my editor for What Are We Not For. The manuscript I submitted to Bull City Press, structurally speaking, was close to the final arrangement, but Matthew encouraged me to meddle with the linearity of the structure. I mean, the narrative of the collection is pretty linear right now, but some of that echoing you are hearing is due to Matt’s suggestions. One of the most obvious examples is what happened with what I call my doggie suite of poems—poems for which you all graciously gave a first home: “Bareback Aubade with the Dog,” “And the Dog Comes Back,” “The Runts,” and “Lycanthropy.” In my mind, that was the order of these poems and that is how they appeared in the initial manuscript. Matthew and I decided to break up the suite and rearrange them, so that they call out to each other across the book while informing the poems immediately around them.
Another choice I should talk about is where the title poem falls in the collection—it’s the penultimate poem. Matt deserves credit for this choice as well. At first, I had this poem so obviously seated at the center of the book. Poems, when putting a manuscript together, are really fractals building toward a single larger version of themselves—that’s what this chapbook is up to as well. Just as each poem is aware of where its volta sits, so too does this collection. “What Are We Not For,” the title poem, acts as a turn of revelation in the collection. “What are we not for,” that phrase, because it is the title of the book, gets teased out for much of the book—it is at once: a dare; a mandate; a question; a resignation. It is not until the penultimate poem that the collection realizes what it has been up to all along.
FWR: Speakers are bodied and performed in a way that responds to assumptions about race and gender (“the black boy/lurking in our imagination” from “There is Always a Face to Tend To”). Yet, there is also this movement away from the body, both as a means of protection (“Our bodies are museums/ Our bodies are objects in a museum A thing a thing” from “The Lynching of Frank Embree”) and a refusal to be limited to the body’s confines. I was wondering if you could speak a bit to this.
TB: The bodies in these poems are always in danger—or at least I mean them to appear that way. These gestures of transformation, or the botched attempts at transformations, are markers of a larger exploration (I think—how can one really be sure) that my work as a whole seeks. Transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent. My poems mean to explore the breakdown between a body’s intent and the gesture that intent manifests. It’s why the poems in this collection are interested in race, gender, and sexuality. Well—all of that and the fact that I am a Black gay man negotiating all of this stuff. In the case of Frank Embree, I mean the speaker to be victim and assailant at once. He, and his kind, has suffered at the hands of men who look like Frank Embree, so he is enraged. He is also troubled by this rage, because it is, also, directed to himself—inheritor of Embree’s body. I like to think that no one, not even me as creator, is protected in my poems.
FWR: When you say, “the bodies in these poems are always in danger… transformation, to my mind, allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent” —firstly, I love this. And, I think it speaks to two correlated ideas, the first being that destruction can allow for transformation (the cliché of the butterfly and all that), even if that transformation is happening in the witness. The second thing I think of is the push between identity and the gesture, how performance might codify identity— for better or worse.
TB: When I say transformation allows me the space to divorce a given body from its intent, I’m thinking in terms of how, at last, a body can reveal itself to be meant for another way of being than one those outside of that body anticipate.
As a Black gay man living in Michigan, I often get the silly phrase “You don’t read as gay.” When, in my mind, I am so very gay. There is a disconnect happening between my choreography and how my postures are being seen. And look at all of the police murders of Black folks that are happening: blackness being seen as a threat that must be stomped out. Little Trayvon in his hoodie being gunned down by Zimmerman, because he thought the boy looked suspicious. Or, in my neck of the woods, Renisha McBride, a Black woman shot while knocking on a door for help. It should not be a surprise that my poems want to sit inside of that disconnect between gesture and intent.
FWR: The play between sensuality and sexuality, particularly with regards to expressions of masculinity/manhood, is threaded throughout the text. I see the movement as poems ease from inertia (the experience or suggestion of pleasure) to urgency (wanting, acting on sex). I read it as a desire to reclaim space, in spite of the stereotypes and violence associated with having a “body/dark and big as history”.
TB: Yeah, okay, sure: that is one way one might look at that patterning—it is there of course. But, I must say, I’m not sure if that reclamation of a Black space, or that redefinition of some view of Blackness, was at the fore in my mind. I’m probably repeating myself, but I’m really interested in this breakdown between intent and the gesture that intent brings forth. This misfiring between intent and gesture is how we arrive, often, at points of pleasure and violence. So, yes, I am thinking about this Black body I have inherited, but I am also thinking about this gay body I have inherited at the same time. This is why, for example, right after “The Lynching of Frank Embree” there is “Aaron McKinney Cleans His Magnum”—a poem around Matthew Shepard (whose death scared me further into the closet in undergrad). And in the reference to Shepard’s murder you are to hear echoes of Pinocchio (another “wicked” boy) and his plight. This is not to say that the book is an erasure of Blackness—you are right; it is there—but it is complicated a bit (or at least I mean it to be).
FWR: When you say “he [the speaker] is troubled by this rage”, is there also the element of society’s denial or suppression of Black anger? An awareness that whiteness expects a Black body to hold his/her feelings without release?
TB: That self-inflicted rage of which I speak comes from a kind of shame. The conversation that is happening in this poem has to do with the speaker and his relation to his own black maleness—and the inherent history with which that comes. Any conversations about the role of whiteness is in the periphery or gets superseded by what is happening between the speaker and the image of Frank Embree. That is why, for example, the admission “yes, white” appears in parenthesis; why the speaker’s thumb tip print sits over the image of the lyncher’s brim. The speaker in the poem is challenging what he can say and do and in what space—the boundary between the room of the gallery and the private room in which a porn film is playing is fractured.
FWR: To shift gears, is there a poem you love to teach or share?
TB: C. Dale Young introduced me to Brigit Pegeen Kelly’s book The Orchard while at Warren Wilson. Now, I am not going to lie, I bought that book a couple of years before getting into Warren Wilson and it sat unread on my bookshelf. (Bad poet, I know.) Let me tell you: when I finally read that book for the first time it unhooked something in me. It’s hard to just tell people to only read one BPK poem, so I often suggest they read The Orchard, but then I tell them to pay close attention to the title poem of that book. The images in all of her poems, but in that poem especially, fidget; they refuse to remain static on the page. Specifically, she does this with similes that I always have a hard time explaining to people, because they think I am talking mixed metaphors or something. (It’s not—I swear!) Watch out for the fucking dog in that poem! Just in the first few lines, the dog is said to be like a horse. Then, without warning, the poem calls it “the horse.” I hate poems, including mine, when there are gestures toward figuration that are only a means of comparison or ornamentation. No, figuration should and can do more. In “The Orchard,” and many other of BPK’s poems, figuration is how the poems keep pushing forward. I was so sad when I heard she passed away. What a loss.
FWR: Thinking ahead to when Four Way Books will publish your full length (and congratulations!) and considering what you say about the ordering of your poems, I was wondering if you might speak to what the process is like moving from a chapbook to a full-length manuscript. Will you be pulling many (or any!) poems from What Are We Not For over? How does the process of revisiting those poems change the way you see them working in conversation with each other?
TB: Thanks—it’s all exciting and scary for me at the same time. Actually, that is my everyday temperament; excited and scared. Ha! Martha Rhodes has been such a huge champion of my work and then there I am like, “Who? Me?” It’s still very early in the process, but I am told things are going to get a little crazy in the next few months for me. At first, I did not want to pull anything from the chapbook, but as the concept for the new book is working itself out, I am seeing that a few poems will be making cameos. Then there are these new poems that will totally recast (there is that word again) those old poems in new ways. That is probably my favorite part of this process is seeing how the old poems gossip with the new poems.
NO BODY, NO TOWN
Whiskey, my father said, can live
in an oak barrel for seventy years. As for me,
I shed skin, and every year I am a new
girl. I need no time to marinate.
It is said that I ruined my body with butter,
Midwestern comfort, and boys
who say, “Missour-ah” loud and benevolently
as they knock back a beer with a twang.
They gather me and drink; their hangovers kill.
The cashiers stare when I need soap
and a crate of apples; they forget
to give me change. They fumble,
mistaking a five for a twenty.
Green eyes, my mother said, are a sign
of an incurable meanness. She always knew
this is no country for women.
When making a fruit salad, does he leave you
the mango pit to suck on?
Do the sweet strings get stuck in your teeth
until you swear off palpable love forever
as though it were a bad habit, a perpetual
Do you love a man’s body or do you prefer
the softness of a woman’s, an apricot
that is dull enough to adore, but quickly
tart and sharp in the back of your mouth?
When I say the word “resentment”
who do you think of first?
When I ask you how many times you had
to cut your own hair with a butcher knife
don’t tell me this was done in your sleep.
He hands me the mango pit, but only
as a replacement for his finger tips, which
are unavailable, forlorn and usually out
of reach physically and spiritually.
The only sweet strings are the ones I pull,
a craft learned in college and in bed.
I love how hard a man’s body can be;
it can cut through tomato skins and muffle
screams like chloroform can. A woman’s
body is lethal in different ways,
like how children can pluck legs off unsuspecting
spiders and leave them dying on the playground.
When you say the word “resentment”
I think of my mother, for she only taught
me to love men who didn’t need women.
And I would never deny sheering off
the one thing that made me beautiful;
but the thing about hair, is that the second
time it grows back, it devours.
To kick off our new interview series, “Between the Lines,” we talk to contributing editor Craig Morgan Teicher about the vagaries of the artistic process and the thematic obsessions that ultimately guide its course.
FWR: You’re currently working with prose poems, which also take on a more conversational structure than some of your previous work. In your poem, “Layoff,” from your book To Keep Love Blurry, you write, “It’s not what you say, but / how you say it and why, whom you address / that makes a poem go.” Can you talk a little about the how and why of these new poems?
CMT: Well, I’m not currently working in prose—I’m actually really going on a new heap of poems that I hope will settle into a manuscript soon, and I’m not sure yet whether this group of prose pieces will fall in with them. These prose pieces came about because Rusty Morrisson at Omnidawn was kind enough to ask me for a chapbook, and after writing and turning in and editing and seeing the publication of To Keep Love Blurry, I felt pretty dried out. Good writing just wasn’t coming, though I wanted to be writing very much—there’s no better feeling than words coming out. So I set myself a project—to take “big topics” as my titles and then kinda think my way down a page on the topic. I let myself write in prose because many of the poems in To Keep Love Blurry are in strict forms and rhyme schemes, and I wanted to break my mind out of those habits, or to take some pressure off. As I wrote a few pieces like this, a voice began to emerge and the pieces began talking to each other. Whether or not it seems like it, these pieces were heavily worked over and drafted over months, which is to say, I guess, that they were a lot hairier when they started.
FWR: Your chapbook, Ambivalence and Other Conundrums, will be published this fall by Omnidawn. The poems featured here touch briefly on specifics, such as a mother’s death, a father’s alcoholism, the speaker’s wife. In the chapbook, do these pieces combine to create a longer narrative?
CMT: Dang, and I thought I was being veiled and unautobiographical in these pieces. Alas. Those three characters—the mother, the father, the wife—which, er, may or may not have an autobiographical basis, keep coming up. Obviously, aside from their relationship to my lived life, they’re important symbols to me, as I end up writing about the way between being a child and being a parent, how one gets there, what the markers and stepping stones are. The chapbook doesn’t have a narrative, but it’s got plenty of evidence of my same old obsessions, as do the new poems I’m working on.
FWR: Do you feel you tend to address your obsessions directly in much of your writing, or do you find they usually manage to seep in on their own? How have they evolved—whether the obsessions themselves or your approach to them—between books?
CMT: I think there are two kinds of writers: those who repeat themselves a lot and those who repeat themselves a little less. I’m the former rather than the latter, I believe, though I hope I’m finding new ways to say the same things. I don’t mind it when writers obsess over their obsessions for an entire career, as long as they get somewhere with it, which I hope I am/will. I think we’re pretty helpless against our obsessions—mine include fear, guilt, my mother, poetry, fatherhood, son-hood, and thinking on camera, as it were—but I try to find new angles of approach.
FWR: I love this idea of taking these “big topics,” as you mentioned earlier, and writing into them, both intellectually and personally. What was the first “big topic” you chose and how did you begin? Did you discover something new or surprising about your relationship to any of these topics while writing these poems?
CMT: Jeez, I can’t even remember now. It was probably fear…I think the subtitle of all of these pieces is “fear,” if not the actual title. Writing is just an endeavor to keep the inner mouth moving, to fend off silence, which is the element in which fear spins its weird webs, which, in fact, are probably as harmless as real spider webs are (to people), but that doesn’t stop most of us from freaking out whenever we walk into one and feel its invisible chords sticking to our skin. I suppose I was reminded of how susceptible to fear I am while writing these pieces, and how interested I am in it, what a muse fear is.