Leah Silvieus, author of the Arabilis, sat down with our editorial intern Eva Weidenfeld to discuss this upcoming release including the meaning behind its Latin-rooted title, the power of the seasons, the spiritual and sonic resonance of religion, and more.
EW: Can you speak to what prompted you to choose the Latin language to title your work, and why this word specifically?
LS: I have to give full credit for the title to my brilliant editor at Bull City Press, Leslie Sainz, who worked with me publishing my chapbook, Season of Dares. Arabilis came up as a possible title for the chapbook, but I thought it would be a better fit for the full-length collection which encompassed all of the seasons. Here’s what Leslie had to say about the title:
Arabilis acknowledges the specific blend of hope and action that the characters/speakers in the collection put to use. The characters in this manuscript are pervaded by a deep sense of longing, of wanting to escape, belong, honor. They essentially “plow through” circumstance to cope in the only ways they know how. I was interested in etymological titles for the manuscript because this collection, despite its elegies and concerns for the external world, feels deeply rooted in the origin story tradition. Arabilis manages to host both physical environment and temperate climate when taken literally, but also anchors readers emotionally when read through the colloquial lens of “to plow through something.” Returning to the literal denotation, plowing, in and of itself, is a violent, forceful act. This title helps us consider the violence that is mostly suggested: the dead fawn in “Field Elegy,” the bodies piling up in “Maryland Route 210 Elegy, Dusk.” Lastly, I think the musicality of Arabilis is particularly striking, and adds a lyrical delicacy to a collection that’s already sonically heightened.
EW: Arabilis is categorized by seasons, yet you start the book at summer, not spring. What was the significance of attributing each set of poems to a season, and to finish at spring, rather than begin there?
LS: Organizing the manuscript by season felt intuitive to me, perhaps because growing up the way I did (in a rural town in the Mountain West, with my religious background) the turning of the seasons governed the rhythms of our daily lives, whether that was in terms of the changing of the temperate seasons or the turning of the liturgical seasons, or the other kinds of seasons that marked the year like hunting season or wildfire season.
Earlier iterations of this manuscript actually began with spring, but as I was revising, one of my editors pointed out how frequently summer came up and I realized that it was summer, rather than spring, where it felt this collection really wanted to begin—for many reasons. For one, summer, where I grew up, was probably the most dramatic of the seasons and the one I remember most—our northern longitude meant that daylight stretched until around 10 p.m. during the height of summer, and the wildfires that often raged around the valleys in which I grew up felt almost apocalyptic in nature: the air filled with smoke and turned the sun red, and we watched as the ridges glowed with flame at night. It was summer, rather than spring that felt like the season of awakening to me, where, despite our technological advances and preventative measures, it felt as we were at the mercy of God and nature. My father was a wildland firefighter then as well, so summer was the time in which our mortality felt especially close.
I concluded Arabilis with spring because, despite the hope and beauty and rebirth that this season connotes, it also is a very messy time that feels laden with more volatility and uncertainty than answers and closure. I didn’t feel it would be honest to have the collection wrap up tidily because I continue to be haunted by the questions that suffuse the book. Instead, I wanted to end by asking, “What happens after?” After trauma, after loss, after one asks questions and doesn’t receive answers—or if those answers weren’t those that we expected? Re-birth and new beginnings, while liberating in some ways, have always felt weighty and fraught to me—what are we to do with all of this possibility?
EW: Many of your pieces contain allusions or direct references to several religious concepts or works, and you even start your book with Matthew 19:14. You mention that the scriptures from your childhood have haunted you since. Did you find that incorporating these scriptures and ideas came naturally to you? Can you speak to the interrogative process of re-imagining the religion you were raised with?
LS: In the Christian Evangelical tradition I grew up in, scripture was everywhere. We learned to memorize it in Sunday School and Bible clubs, and our youth pastor encouraged us to keep scripture with us at all times: I remember writing passages of scripture and fastening them inside my shoes so I was literally “walking with the Word of God.” Although I practice my faith differently now than I did from the way I grew up, once in a while, certain scriptures will pop into my head, like a song I can’t forget. With regard to re-imagining the religion I was raised with—it wasn’t as much a project of active interrogation as much as it was that certain phrases kept creeping into my poems—and I had to figure out what to do with them.
Sometimes what haunted me weren’t even words, but patterns in cadence and syntax. In some ways, I think my lyrical ear was trained through my exposure to religious ritual growing up, whether it was through call and response, praise music, or prayer. The kind of prayer I grew up with was freeform and often long, and learning to pray was not just about the content of the prayer but also learning to shape cadence of the words into the arc of a prayer that often began in a long and grand address to God, moved through often tearful confessions, meditative gratitude, then swept upward into a dramatic supplication. I wouldn’t be surprised if the rhythms of my poems reflect the metrical patterns of my childhood prayers. In the end, I don’t feel so much that I incorporated these scriptures and rituals into these poems as much as these poems have sprung from the remains of my childhood faith, and this collection is an attempt make a home where both of us now can live.
EW: Animals are often seen throughout Arabilis in terms of violence—the snake in “Sonnet In Cold Blood,” wasps in “Equinox,” the frog in “Invasive Species,” the doe carcass in “Field Dressing,” the horses in “Agency,” along with many others. What is the significance of juxtaposing the natural world with the painful imagery that is often related to the human world?
LS: I know I tend to anthropomorphize animals and so I was interested in interrogating the limits and possibilities of that phenomenon. How much can we learn about human morality, its attitudes toward violence and otherization, through the lens of our relationship to nature? Juxtaposing the natural world with the human world became a way of exploring anthropomorphism and dehumanization. What, for example, makes it, in some instances, seem OK to kill a non-poisonous snake that enters a house than a rabbit that enters a garden and eats all of the summer’s lettuce? How are we OK with being passive observers of some kind of violences and not of others? Why are we often more empathetic with the suffering of those animals that we can more easily anthropomorphize, say, a baby mammal, than those we find more difficult to relate to—say an insect? What does it mean when in the process of trying to be helpful, we perpetrate another kind of violence?
EW: How has your background of being adopted from South Korea created bridges or obstacles regarding your path to getting your work seen and published?
LS: It wasn’t until I was in college that I was aware that there were other Asian American writers at all, and it wasn’t until I was in South Korea teaching under a Fulbright grant that I met another adoptee poet, my now friend and mentor Lee Herrick. Lee was the first person to publish my work through a magazine feature that he was guest editing. Since then, especially through spaces like Kundiman, I’ve found such a generous and welcoming community of writers that have been supportive in my journey both as a writer and an adoptee and am so grateful to have come of age in a time when adoptee stories are gaining more visibility.
Born in South Korea and raised in Montana and Colorado, Leah Silvieus now travels between Florida and New York as a yacht chief stewardess. She is the author of two chapbooks, Anemochory (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Season of Dares (Bull City Press). Her full-length book of poetry, Arabilis, is forthcoming from Sundress Publications in 2019. She holds an MFA from the University of Miami, is a Kundiman Fellow and serves as a Books Editor at Hyphen magazine. Visit her at leahsilvieus.com.
Eva Weidenfeld is a current senior at Western Washington University. She will complete her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature with additional concentrations in Film Studies and Sociology in June of 2019. She is a reader for the 55th edition of WWU’s student-run Jeopardy Magazine. When she isn’t focusing on school work or editing gigs, you can find her at the local arthouse cinemas or somewhere scenic with a book (and a beer) in hand.
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