Ahead of the release of Lessons in Bending, author Jonaki Ray and Editorial Intern Amber Alexander sat down to discuss duality, survival, loss, and how science lends itself well to Ray’s personal storytelling.
Amber Alexander: Lessons in Bending is not only the title of the collection but the first poem as well. Can you speak to the importance of this phase for both respectively?
Jonaki Ray: You have started this interview with a great question! The title of the collection, Lessons in Bending, is the same as that of the first poem because the phrase represents the essence of both. Those who are powerless, like the narrator in the first poem, learn that survival sometimes means somehow remaining unbroken; the world also teaches, through various inequities, who has the power versus who is powerless and has to bend, metaphorically or literally. I was also inspired to keep the collection with the same title because the poems represent the voice of those who are voiceless—the incarcerated, refugees, migrants, and immigrants—who learn these lessons, and yet, remain resilient.
AA: Can you speak to the recurring motif of freedom and forgiveness? How do these two intwine themselves within this chapbook? Where do they come into conflict?
JR: One of the most moving experiences of my life was traveling through Vietnam and Cambodia—it inspired the poem, “Killing Trees,” of this collection. At a place where the Khmer Rouge regime imprisoned people, one of the survivors could be seen sitting at the gate, and despite (or perhaps because of) what he has been through, he spoke about forgiveness. This stayed in my thoughts, and the poems in this collection swirl around the idea of forgiveness and how forgiving can be freeing. Yet, the paradox of life remains that forgiveness is nearly impossible, especially when there isn’t a single entity or symbol to forgive, and the inequities are systemic rather than personal. That is when these motifs come into conflict.
AA: Your poetry explores a number of different forms, lineation, and structures. Does your experimentation with structure and structureless poems in this collection serve to tell a bigger story and its complexities—for example, the rigidness of “Six Feet” compared to the chaotic lineation of “You Will be Saved”? Does “Evacuation” tell a visual story and, if so, can you elaborate?
JR: I have recently started using different forms and visual poetry because they offer so many more ways, at least for me, for expression. Another reason for these varied forms is that I often start a poem based on an image or something that has moved me that evokes a visual response to me. For instance, the poem, “Evacuation,” came about because of the news and images during the evacuation from Kabul recently. The words and space represent the idea that as refugees, or former citizens trying to get evacuated, the first idea that evaporates is that of citizenship. The iconic and visceral image of bodies falling from the planes that are taking off without them represented the lack of empathy and dehumanization of those who need the most compassion and help. I tried to express that concept through the free-falling words on the page. In contrast, “You Will be Saved” represents the chaos and hurt of people, especially women of color, who are caught in the vicious cycle of shelters, abuse, and incarceration, and often slip through the cracks in the system.
AA: In “Two Hundred Thousand,” there is urgency and desperation within the repetition. Would you speak about the process of creating the purposefulness of this, and what the most important take away you have from this piece specifically?
JR: The cyclic nature of history and the ebbing and flowing of who is considered a citizen and who an immigrant are fascinating topics for me. This particular poem showcases the fact that while around World War II, two hundred thousand people were deported from Paris, history keeps repeating, and even today, there are people who are not the “correct” color or citizenship and are being sent “back” or deported. The rhythm came naturally when I started writing this poem.
AA: How did the influence of nature find a way into Lessons in Bending and the overall story you tell? I’m thinking of examples like “The peak of summer temperature is / measured by how fast tears evaporate.” from the poem “A Mirage at the Border,” forget-me-nots in “99,” and titles such as “The Killing Trees” and “Dandelion Time.”
JR: Nature is inevitably linked to injustice because again, the devastating effects of droughts, floods, and deforestation, and climate change, for instance are also impacting those who are powerless the most, whether it is someone considered outsiders, migrants, or women and children. I try to bring out these parallel threads through interweaving nature into my writing.
AA: This collection tells many different stories with common themes such as home, loss, yearning, and belonging. How does the power of storytelling inspire you, especially with these poems and these themes?
JR: Storytelling came to me fairly recently—I studied science and while I was always an avid reader, I was more comfortable with the world of observation and data. However, I realized that there is a science to storytelling, too, especially if I want to distill my ideas into concise words, or want my readers to imagine the story in their minds as they read my words. As I mentioned earlier, as poets and writers, we are both witnessing and testifying to what is happening around us through our words. Stories are also what help us realize that all of us have a commonality when we think about loss, belonging, yearning, and searching for home. Another aspect to storytelling is that all these themes have their associated traumas, and it is a powerful and therapeutic way of dealing, or attempting to deal, with those.
AA: Do any one of your pieces speak to you the most?
JR: I can’t choose any one piece—they all speak to me because there is a part of me in each of them!
Lessons in Bending is available to download for free on the Sundress website
Jonaki Ray was educated in India (Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur) and the United States (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign). A scientist by education and training, and a software engineer (briefly) in the past, she is now a poet, writer, and editor in New Delhi, India. Honours for her work include Pushcart and Forward Prize for Best Single Poem nominations in 2018; the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award; and First Prize in the 2017 Oxford Brookes International Poetry Contest (ESL). She has also been shortlisted for multiple awards, including the 2021 Live Canon Chapbook Contest and the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize. Her full-length poetry collection, Firefly Memories, was published by Copper Coin in 2023. She is on Twitter as @Jona_writes, on Instagram as jonaki_stories, and on the advisory board of the YouTube channel, Just Another Poet. You can read more about her at www.jonakiray.com.
Amber Alexander holds a B.A. in English with research distinction and triple minors (Creative Writing, Professional Writing, and History) from The Ohio State University. They plan to pursue graduate level studies in the near future and currently works in higher education. They have previously worked on the Editorial Staff for Cornfield Review, where they has also been published. Alexander earned multiple awards for poetry, prose, playwriting, and creative nonfiction while an undergrad.