Zoë Fay-Stindt’s Bird Body offers readers a fresh mythology, one that is avian and ardent, through which we may better understand ourselves. There are no black and white solutions, but there is humidity, desire, breath. The poems explain that, by accepting the harm our bodies have housed, we can find the wings to evolve, if not to escape. In their responses to my questions, Fay-Stindt discloses the transformations their manuscript underwent to become Bird Body.
Marah Hoffman: The collection’s three sections–the priming, distress signal, and finally soft places to land–and their accompanying epigraphs gracefully provide context for the poems. How did you decide on these sections?
Zoë Fay-Stindt: Thank you! I’m glad they land—no pun intended. As a trauma recovery narrative, non-linearity is a really important element of Bird Body’s structure, so organizing the poems into clean, legible sections seemed really strange. That said, finding clarity through the containers that each section offered was such a relief for me! I owe that relief, actually, to the literal floorboards of Sundress’ Firefly Farms: I had all but given up on Bird Body when I came to Sundress for a writing residency, and I decided to give the chapbook one last overhaul to see if it might be salvaged. Spreading the collection’s pages out on the floor let me step into the mess of the project for the first time in several years, and from that chaos, these three sections gathered themselves up. These are the magic moments of writing: when it feels like the work is more in charge of itself than you are and you just have to step back to let it do its thing.
MH: Specifically in the section the priming, the poems pulse with wanting and the shame that follows. In “the last summer of innocence” are the lines, “I the shameful/leader of our trespasses, horrified/at my appetite, blooming predator” (15). And in “pap smear,” “my consumption/far beyond the suggested amount” (17). As the collection progresses, consumption continues to be a theme. How can birds help us understand our desires?
ZFS: Mmm, that’s an interesting question. It makes sense that want, shame, and consumption show up a lot. Writing this chapbook, I was trying to wrestle with the lessons that the body—especially an AFAB body coming into sexuality, desire, queerness, and hunger—gets taught about its worth as a sexual object. This first section, the priming, tried to hold these ideas of shame and desire up to the light without offering any clear answers. The poems in here speak to the real messy process of trying to make sense of that “priming,” and the language of shame that I microdosed all through adolescence.
ZFS: To answer your question about the birds, I’m actually not sure I know how they can help us understand our desires! But in Bird Body, at least, they helped me find a surrealist escape that wasn’t anchored in dichotomies of good/bad or right/wrong. Moving beyond the human world, I could let go of the shame I had inherited around my body, my desire, and the violence I had experienced.
MH: There is a tone of reclamation that sparks in distress signal. The speaker proclaims, “In my mythology…” (24). Overall, the poems express invention: symbols metamorphose, archetypes take flight. I say all this to bring me to my question, what was your research process like? It’s clear that amidst your experimentation is an awareness of the Bible, fables, and mythology.
ZFS: The speaker in these poems—and the younger version of me—was really hungry for a mythology that could step outside of the virgin-whore complex and greet their body as the beautiful, confusing animal that it was. My research process wasn’t very structured for this project, actually, but I did tuck into a lot of varying mythology to think about how birds have been represented in religious texts across the centuries, and birds often appeared as creators—or at least present during the creation of life. If birds were our guides or creators rather than a man-like figure, what kind of possibilities could that offer to envisioning a world beyond violent legacies?
MH: Were your poems inspired by any particular landscapes and/or seasons? I noticed a few pieces describe settings that are warm and wet–traditional descriptors of fertile places, despite the collection’s complicated relationship with maternity. To add a second question, would you like to speak to this juxtaposition?
ZFS: Oh, yeah. I was raised humid: growing up in North Carolina swamp country, the world around me was a rich and thick place. I still feel most alive when I’m in sweat-wet places—so much living goes on there! I love that humidity seeped through the poems so much.
MH: I am a huge fan of the second person, and I noticed you are too! “You” has many different owners throughout the collection: birds, a lover, the speaker’s mother, the speaker themself. What were your goals for point of view (and pronouns) as you wrote Bird Body?
ZFS: I think I’d be lying if I said I had any explicit goals for this, but thank you for the generosity of your question! Thinking about it retroactively, second person often takes hold in my poetry as a response to an always-shifting sense of distance between myself and the “outside” world. The boundaries around me feel forever in flux, and second person allows me to simultaneously hold the world at arm’s length (with boundaries, even as they fluctuate) while still stepping into deep intimacy. Beyond the page, that feels true to my experience of the world: I’m always in direct address. Always in conversation with you—you, Marah, or you, heron, or you, Mom, or you, cypress. These beings crowd my sense of self—delightfully, strangely—and the second person lets all those creatures in. I love how even that phrase, the second person, acknowledges a presence. A doubling. That feels true.
MH: While acknowledging the aches and ruptures, Bird Body spotlights awe. The personification of good’s malleability seems to be the heron, this otherworldly creature that can both swallow baby birds and bless a horizon. Would you mind explaining why herons are significant to you? What do they have to say about the notion of ‘good’?
ZFS: Hmm, that’s a really interesting question. I think, as I mentioned before, that a lot of my process of writing Bird Body was trying to figure out what the hell “good” meant in this world. Also, what does that even mean? The heron in Bird Body often appears as a complicated figure—a healer, a companion, but also, as you point out, a creature who hunts, who hungers. This felt important to me to sit with, and to, once again, step into a reality that’s almost never as black and white as we’d like to imagine.
MH: Lastly, a question I always love to ask is, what was your revision process like? Any advice to other writers who are compiling a poetry manuscript?
ZFS: Whew! Yes. An important question with an always-messy answer. As I mentioned earlier on, my revision process usually involves a lot of printed versions of the collection to make sense of the work as an embodied, separate being. Who are these poems, and what are the conversations they’re having? Spread out on the floor, I can get a real sense of them. I also like to take myself to a café and sit down with my manuscript-in-process to meet her again: who is she? What is she doing? What’s she been up to while I was sleeping, eating, taking a bath? After gathering a draft of my manuscript together and putting it down for a while, I like to come back to the work, read through it as a whole, and write down my general sense of what the collection is working towards and what questions it’s raising. I’m almost always surprised. I think that’d be my general advice: leave your manuscript alone for a while. Go for a several months-long walk. Then let yourself listen to what the work is telling you beyond what you thought you wanted the work to say, and see how you can honor that.
Zoë Fay-Stindt is a queer, bicontinental poet with roots in both the French and American South. Their work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, featured or forthcoming in places such as Southern Humanities, Ninth Letter, and Poet Lore, and gathered into a chapbook, Bird Body, winner of Cordella Press’ inaugural Gwendolyn Brooks Poetry Prize. She lives in Ames, Iowa, where she is an MFA candidate at Iowa State University, poetry editor for the environmental journal, Flyway, and a community farm volunteer. You can learn more at www.zoefaystindt.com.
Marah Hoffman has a bachelor’s in English and Creative Writing from Lebanon Valley College. In college, she served as co-poetry editor of Green Blotter Literary Magazine and Sigma Tau Delta English Honors Society president. From the LVC English department, she won The Green Blotter Writer Award. She has been featured in journals including Green Blotter, LURe Journal, Oakland Arts Review, Beyond Thought, and Asterism. Now, she supports Sundress Academy for the Arts through her role as Creative Director. Marah loves creative nonfiction, intertextuality, whimsicality, cats, lattes, distance running, and adding to her personal lexicon. Her list of favorite words grows every week.