Welcome back to Lyric Essentials! This week Anna Meister will be reading Diannely Antigua’s work and discussing the act of reading a poem verbally, admirations, and future plans. Thank you for tuning in!
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi: Why did you choose Diannely Antigua?
Anna Meister: I wanted to speak about Diannely’s poetry because I so appreciate and admire the frank, unapologetic way her work wrangles mental illness as subject matter. I almost wrote that her poems embody a fearlessness, but I think it’s more that the poet allows fear (of stigma, of succumbing, of survival) to be in the poems, and I find that honesty very brave and refreshing.
AH: Throughout the poems, there seems to be this theme of hunger for something. As a poet yourself, would you say you feel a connection to this concept of wanting something more in your writing?
AM: Yeah, I certainly feel like my poems tend to come from a place of not knowing, searching for answers. And in that vein, the feeling of longing or unsatiated hunger propels me forward, which I do feel moving through Antigua’s work. It also makes me think about the biblical references and imagery in Ugly Music, how the speaker’s religious history and questioning/speaking to god are connected to an erotic hunger and understanding of her own sexuality.
AH: Listening to you read these poems and actually reading them on the page was a completely different experience. How was the act of verbally reading these poems? Did it change anything for you?
I always like to hear things aloud as I’m reading; there’s such joy in how differently a poem’s music comes through when read versus on the page. And yes, her book is titled Ugly Music, but Antigua really does have such a musical ear and there’s a lot that’s just sonically delightful about these poems. Something else I noticed in reading them aloud is that, due in part to all of the poems being in first person, their vulnerability (and mine as the reader) felt amplified. The term “confessional poetry” can get a bad rap (which is pretty sexist), but I think Diannely is absolutely showcasing the power of the poem as a space for confession and saying the “unsayable” thing.
AH: Your poetry collection recently came out with Sundress. Got any exciting plans coming up in the near future?
AM: While this isn’t related to What Nothing, I was just able to get a vaccination appointment for the end of the month and I’m pretty excited about that! I’m looking forward to the ways in which life will feel easier in the months to come, as more and more people get vaccinated and are able to be together again. I miss experiencing poetry with other people! To have my first book released during quarantine/a pandemic has been different than I’d imagined, though I have enjoyed partaking in virtual events and I’m grateful for the accessibility and connection they’ve provided. I’m hoping to travel a bit later this year to see friends, do some readings, and celebrate What Nothing more widely. I’m really proud that it’s finally out in the world!
Diannely Antigua is the author of Ugly Music (YesYes Books, 2019), which won the Pamet River Prize. Previously nominated for the Pushcart Prize and selected for Best of the Net, her poems can be found in The Adroit Journal, Bennington Review, and Washington Square Review. She received her MFA from New York University.
Anna Meister is the author of the poetry collection What Nothing (Sundress Publications, 2021), as well as two chapbooks. Meister received an MFA in Poetry from New York University, where she was a Goldwater Writing Fellow. Her poems have appeared in The Rumpus, Redivider, The Adroit Journal, BOAAT, and elsewhere. She lives in Des Moines, Iowa with her wife and son.
Ashley Hajimirsadeghi has had work appear, or forthcoming, in Into the Void Magazine, DIALOGIST, Rust + Moth, and The Shore, among others. She currently reads for Mud Season Review and EX/POST Magazine, is the Playwriting & Director’s Apprentice at New Perspectives Theatre Company, was a Brooklyn Poets Fellow, and is the co-Editor in Chief of Juven Press. More of her work can be found at ashleyhajimirsadeghi.com
In anticipation of his fifth poetry collection, The Valley, and its 2021 debut, Sundress Publications author Esteban Rodriguez sat down with our Editorial Intern, Lee Anderson, to discuss emptiness, memories, and how syntax can bring family back together.
Lee Anderson: The pictures throughout the book were originally taken by your mother and sister, Maria and Iris Pérez. Tell me about your decisions to use their pictures, which ones to place, and where you placed them.
Esteban Rodriguez: When I originally conceived of The Valley, I knew I wanted photographs included, not necessarily in the ekphrastic sense (although the photos can undoubtedly be seen in that light), but as a way to compliment the poems and visually document the landscape of the Rio Grande Valley (located in deep South Texas—no, not San Antonio, think five hours south). I read Austerlitz, The Rings of Saturn, and The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald in grad school, and I was quite fascinated by the way he included photographs throughout his novels. For me, they don’t so much as add to the novels as they do accompany the texts, and if I could do the same, in a poetry collection, then why not?
I live in Austin, and my visits to the Valley have become less frequent throughout the years. But my family still lives there, and I asked if they would be willing to undertake a small project in the spring/summer of 2019. My mother had just retired, and my sister, who’s dabbled in photography over the years, had just graduated from nursing school and had some free time on her hands before she began work.
There was no way not to include first photo at the beginning of the collection, which is the house that I grew up in. It’s quite old now, and my aunt lives there, and visually, I think it embodies many houses throughout the Valley, especially those in the colonias or that aren’t defined by the city limits of Weslaco (my hometown). Each photo is meant to add to the overall narrative, as well as show the places that I would frequent with my family—the border between the U.S. and Mexico, church, Downtown McAllen, South Padre Island, all of which have, in some shape or form, defined me.
LA: Homemade medicine and cures are common motifs throughout the book, often intersected by family and self-reliance. Considering especially the lines “her body like all bodies not immunized / to the circumstances they’ve inherited” (from “Recuerdo: Wardrobes”), how does medicine work in terms of passing down tradition?
ER: Growing up, my family was very wary of going to the doctor’s office, especially my grandmother, who was from Mexico. It was recommended we try home or over-the-counter remedies first (Vicks, Robitussin, prayers and prayer candles under the bed), and if that didn’t work, then a few days rest—no doubt in my mother’s and grandmother’s eyes—would do the trick. What wasn’t so easily revealed to us (us children that is), is that our access to insurance and therefore medical services wasn’t always available, and if it was (my mother did work for the state of Texas), the bills that would results from a visit, or even a hospital stay, were much greater than we had budgeted for the month. We had to rely on what we had, and hopefully that was enough to get us through another day.
LA: Can you speak to the recurring images of circuses, fairs, and fairgrounds?
ER: The Rio Grande Valley Livestock Show and Rodeo happens every year in the Valley in March (usually during Spring Break), and growing up, this was definitely one of the events to look forward. I have always been fascinated with fairs and circuses because of the promise they offer—adrenaline on every roller coaster ride; small and large prizes and rewards at every booth; satisfaction with funnel cakes, turkey legs, and cotton candy. What was there not to love about the Stock Show? What is common throughout the Valley too is traveling circuses and carnivals that pop up throughout the year. You can usually find them off an empty lot of some frontage road, and with them there are families that show up, walking throughout the grounds, hoping to experience something beyond the ordinary, even if just for a night.
LA: In “Recuerdo: Summer, 1996” you write, “and the world has moved on / framing the horizon with heavy-handed themes // of loneliness and loss.” How does the heaviness of loneliness and loss in the world intersect with, or contradict, your own visions of solitude throughout the book?
ER: In many ways, it’s hard not to feel that the Valley lives in a bubble, especially as a child when it appeared that the entire world existed outside of the Valley. When I tell people who are not familiar with Texas (and even some that are) that I am from South Texas, they automatically think of San Antonio. I have to explain that I am from a town five hours south of San Antonio, near the Mexican border, and every time I do explain, I think of the limbo (or what feels like a limbo) that exits between San Antonio and the Valley. I don’t mean to snub everyone who lives in that area, but for me, and many of the people I grew up with, it wasn’t a whole lot more different than the Valley itself, and I think that is where the ideas of solitude come from in the book. No one, despite their claims otherwise, wants to be lonely, and perhaps writing these poems was a way to bring the loneliness out, to let the world serve as company to my past self.
LA: Many of these poems consider ideas of growing up and coming-of-age, yet it is not often the object of focus; when it is, such as in “McAllen,” the idea seems distant. How does the decentering of these sorts of rituals shift how we view ourselves and the world?
ER: I always have an eye on the past, and my first three poetry collections (Dust & Dust, Crash Course, and In Bloom) were primarily about my childhood. My fourth collection, (Dis)placement, departed from that narrative, focusing more on diaspora and violence through a surreal lens, and there are hints of that surrealism in the poem “El río” in The Valley. Having ideas of growing up and coming-of-age as the center of focus is, for me, important and I think it helps illuminate the way I view my upbringing, my identity, and the essence of the Valley, but decentering it, and looking at it from the outside oftentimes has the same effect.
LA: How do memories, such as those in the poems titled with “Recuerdo”, impact the way we view the past and affect the ways we think about our presents and potential futures?
ER: I think these poems help navigate the past more than they do the present or future. These poems were initially written years before the other poems in the collection, but I couldn’t find a way for them to fit in my previous books (and there were some of them that needed major revisions). In my view, these poems allowed me to explore more of the past than I thought was possible, looking at the landscape of my childhood home, my uncles and their obsessions, or how we sought to heal our bodies. When I exhumed them from the depth some nearly obscure computer file, I was able to connect with those moments more intimately, and it was quite cathartic to relive what I thought would be forgotten.
LA: How do you see the dichotomy, or overlap, of empty settings and people out of space in these poems?
ER: In the Valley, there are a lot of empty lots and spaces that have remained empty since I was a child. There are also empty buildings and plazas that were never rented out, and if they were, those businesses never seemed to last long. One of the most influential collections (and one that I continue to recommend to everyone who writes, not just poets) is Night of the Republic by Alan Shapiro, which explores public places throughout America—gas station restroom, supermarket, shoe store, convention hall. The poems are devoid of people, but people seem to haunt even corner of it, and there are many places in the Valley similar to that that I wanted to capture. I wanted the poem to mirror what I visually saw and having an unpunctuated narrative helped the ideas flow easier across the page. I am also a faithful reader of Cormac McCarthy’s works, and it’s definitely possible to use as little punctuation in your work.
LA: Tell me about the particular syntax of these poems, particularly the use of enjambment and blank spaces between phrases in individual lines.
ER: W.S. Merwin’s The Vixen was the foundation for my book, specifically with regards to the lack of punctuation and the enjambment. If you’ve read Merwin’s work, you know it’s infamous for its absence of periods, commas, semicolons, etc., and I wanted to explore my own work through this approach as well. But I wanted to distinguish the poems with titles of city names from the “Recuerdo” poems, mainly because the “Recuerdo” poems are meant to explore the past more thoroughly. These poems have spaces to indicate a pause and spread out the speaker’s thoughts (they also provide some breathing room for the reader).
LA: “El río” is a multi-page prose poem ending in three and a half pages of names. Can you speak to the narrative weight of that poem?
ER: My fascination with surrealism stems from the work of certain artists: Salvador Dalí, Max Ernst, Kay Sage, and Jeff Jordan, the artist who provided the artwork for three of The Mars Volta’s albums, Amputechture, The Bedlam in Goliath, and Octahedron (I should note The Mars Volta has been quite influential in my own writing, and the manner in which they could produce concept albums with such a lyrical, strange, and surreal force continues to be a source of inspiration).
“El río” is meant to document my father’s journey into the United States, but through a hallucinatory/surreal approach. The father in the poem finds himself in various and almost impossible places throughout his crossing, and the river plays a central role in how it defines his trek into another country, often times attempting to keep him from completing it. My father’s journey is by no means unique, and at the end of the poem you see names that are meant to be representations of those who have lost their lives trying to make a new and better life, especially those who have never been recovered or found.
LA: Which poem(s) in this collection is/are closest to your heart?
ER: I would say that I’m perhaps closest to the “Recuerdo” poems, mainly because they were poems that didn’t fit into prior books, and I was able to use them fittingly here. Paul Valéry said that a poem is never finished, but only abandoned. I’m not sure to what extend I agree with Valéry, but I no doubt salvaged these poems and found a home for them here.
Esteban Rodriguez is the author of the collections Dusk & Dust (Hub City Press, 2019), Crash Course (Saddle Road Press, 2019), In Bloom (SFASU Press, 2020) and (Dis)placement (Skull + Wind Press, 2020). His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, The Rumpus, Shenandoah, TriQuarterly, and elsewhere. He is the Interviews Editor for EcoTheo Review, an Assistant Poetry Editor for AGNI, and a regular reviews contributor for PANK and Heavy Feather Review. He lives with his family in Austin, Texas.
Lee Anderson is a nonbinary MFA candidate at Northern Arizona University, where they are the Managing Editor of Thin Air Magazine. They have been published sporadically but with zest, with work seen or forthcoming in The Rumpus, Columbia Journal, Unstamatic Magazine, and elsewhere.
Winner of Sundress Publications’ eight annual chapbook competition, Hannah V Warren’s,[re]construction of the necromancer, is a haunting reimagining of Hansel and Gretel that explores the themes of transformation, motherhood and creating our own fate. Editorial Intern, Ada Wofford discusses these themes with the author, as well as the significance of reimagining Hansel and Gretel today.
Ada Wofford: What can you tell us about the book’s inscription, “To the girls with the moss in their hair”?
Hannah V Warren: I’m thinking about women who had their own experiences with abandonment in their childhood, but that word means something different for everyone. In the forest, Gretel felt no more alone than in her home. This collection is for those women, the ones who felt lingering instability, no matter where they were—the ones who would have embraced Gretel’s forest and the ability to transform their bodies into something new if they could.
AW: What is the significance of reimagining Hansel and Gretel today, in 2020?
HVW: We’re currently living in a moment where people are returning to fairy tale, to legend and lore, more frequently than ever. Funnily enough, a movie about Hansel and Gretel came out the same week this chapbook released. (I haven’t seen it, but I hope people revel.)
I think we all find comfort in these stories, the ones we’ve heard again and again. There’s an entrenched familiarity. At least for me, reinventions investigate the troubling aspects of fairy tales we take for granted. In the Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel,” the tale ends with riches and forgiveness. Although their father supported their demise, the children are easy to forget all trespasses: “Now all their cares were at an end, and they lived happily together.” I wanted to write a new Gretel, someone who doesn’t need to end on forgiveness but instead focuses on her own recovery, realizing she owes nothing to her birth family, especially not absolution of emotional and physical traumas.
AW: Can you talk about the recurring theme of “forgetting” in the book?
HVW: I played with memory a bit in this collection, considering how we process traumatic events. It’s easy to go days, or even a week, without thinking about anything that happened over a decade ago. Then, you’ll smell menthol. Or you’ll hear someone humming. Or a man will brush against your arm. Suddenly, hot stones brim your gut. As Gretel grows older, her childhood memories become fuzzier, but there are moments that haunt her, that she can’t forget. The “forgetting” poems contain many of these specific memories for Gretel, those moments that always return.
AW: Can you speak about the use of spaces and line breaks throughout the book and what their function is to the overall story?
HVW:[re]construction of the necromancer is concerned with the blueprints of our bodies; how we put things back together when they fall apart. I love white space in a poem. Those blanks and breaks are almost as important to me as the words. I imagine them as instructions that guide Gretel, but she doesn’t quite understand how to follow along because she’s never transformed her body before. It’s like putting together a human skeleton when you don’t know where any of the bones go. In these poems, the spaces are sometimes jarring, pulling the language apart like stretched taffy. I think that’s what it would be like to grow a completely new body, to abandon the parts that no longer belong.
AW: What is the significance of the shifting perspective, from first-person to third?
HVW: In these poems, I wanted to create something immersive, atmospheric. In film, it’s really easy to shift perspectives, to show the audience something the main character doesn’t know. I thought a great deal about what the reader needs to know versus what Gretel needs to know, and I quickly realized that Gretel, after her transformation, wouldn’t care a lick about how her birth mother was getting along. Regardless, it was important to me that the reader know how the forest continued interacting with the mother, how this sentience cared for Gretel quietly. In the “Guide for” poems that come at the collection’s beginning and end, I hope the first-, second-, and third-person perspectives join together. The reader is not watching Gretel but instead becomes Gretel in a fractional way. The reader learns to transform.
AW: Can you speak about the themes of eating and consumption found throughout the book?
HVW: The generally unquestioned cannibalism in fairy tales is always so fascinating to me. In lore, eating other folks is a representation of evil, and that’s that. In this collection, one of my goals was to up the ante on every aspect of the Grimms’ tale. What we consume is such an important part of our identities. I’m from south Mississippi, and I felt like part of me melted when I lived in the Midwest for a few years. Where was the crawfish bisque, the okra, the fried catfish, the Cajun seasoning? I wanted [re]construction of the necromancer to be indulgent, gluttonous even. You can’t think of Gretel without thinking of cannibalism, so I twisted that part of the story to empower Gretel. Does that make Gretel a representation of evil, as well? Probably yes, but also maybe no. Throughout the poems, Gretel shifts from starvation to indulging whenever she wants.
AW: Can you talk about the theme of transformation in the book?
HVW: I love writing within the feminine grotesque. In fairy tales, women’s bodies are consistently changing in mimetic and non-mimetic ways, often to reveal something crucial about the narrative’s moral. I hoped to do something similar with Gretel. Children aren’t helpless, per se, but they are small and relatively defenseless, which the normalization of trauma only exacerbates. Gretel’s transformations are her body’s response to her inability to forget and escape the memories that haunt her. The animal and forest parts of her new form cannot remember abandonment or violation, and they help her attain a semblance of stability as she processes her experiences.
AW: Can you talk about the significance of motherhood in the book and how does it connect to the forest?
HVW: When I first started cobbling together this collection, I knew I wanted Gretel to escape the ills that plague her, which includes her birth mother, but I wasn’t sure how I was going to make it happen. Slowly, the poems I added revealed other mother figures. The candy witch from the Grimms’ story is the mother Gretel never had; she teaches Gretel to care for herself, to cook, to change her body. The forest, as well, acts as a semi-motherly figure in the tender slips where they interact, brushing away debris from Gretel’s skin, feeding her encouragement and dried meats. Throughout her time in the forest, Gretel realizes she can rely on others, but she must find a balance, relying on herself, as well, before she can rejoin the world.
Hannah V Warren is a Ph.D. student at the University of Georgia where she studies poetry and speculative narratives. Her poems have haunted or will soon appear in Mid-American Review, Moon City Review, and Redivider, among others. Follow her at @hannahvwarren and learn more at hannahvwarren.com.
Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature. She is a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib literary magazine, the Founding Editor of My Little Underground, and has been published by McSweeney’s, Fudoki Magazine, Burial Day Books, and more.
Angela Narciso Torres’ chapbook, To the Bone, explores themes of motherhood, life, death, tradition, and culture. Torres writes with a rhythm and musicality all her own, playing with imagery and meaning in a manner that reminds one of the kaleidoscopic perspectives of the impressionists.
In this interview, Sundress intern Ada Wofford took some time to correspond with Torres about this chapbook and the concepts therein.
Ada Wofford: I noticed the repeated themes of food and eating, what can you tell me about the significance of those themes?
Angela Narciso Torres: The theme of food and eating recurs because cooking (and eating) was a valuable part of our family, especially on the maternal side. It was a metaphor for love, as is the case in many Filipino families. Where words failed, food came in to fill the gaps. Meals were not only for sustenance but for nourishing and strengthening family ties. Many of my best childhood memories revolved around the unforgettable meals we shared. And because this book is about love, and family, and loss—food naturally became one of the central tropes.
AW: The poem, “VIA NEGATIVA” eschews the use of question marks and uses a long space to emphasize a particular line. What is the role/function of punctuation and space in this poem and the book as a whole?
ANT: The negative space in the middle of this poem is used to enact, in a physical way, the poem’s subject. My use of punctuation, or the lack of it, is always deliberate in my poems. I view punctuation as a valuable tool for teaching the reader how to read the poem, and so it must be employed with great care and attention. Along with line breaks, they control the pacing of the poem, but also the tone. We can extend the pauses between sentences with punctuation; adding white space extends that pause even further.
AW: What is the significance of light and sunlight in these poems?
ANT: Growing up in the Philippines, light was either overabundant (during the dry season) or notably lacking (during rainy season). As a poet, I’ve always been aware of light as something that can influence the mood or tone surrounding a memory or a felt experience. When I moved to the United States and experienced the four seasons it deepened and expanded my appreciation for various qualities of light and how they can alter not only our moods but also the tone of an experience, when expressed in language. It is one of those devices we have at our disposal as poets to get at a feeling that we need to express in words and images.
AW: One poem is called, “Self-Portrait of a Rosary” and rosary beads are mentioned elsewhere as well. What is the significance of Catholicism in this collection?
ANT: Having been raised Catholic and having attended parochial schools growing up in the Philippines, the language of liturgy and scripture naturally found their way into my poems. The cadences of the psalms, prayers, the liturgy of the Word, and the ritual of the Mass were easily some of the first poetic language I’d learned. There’s a cadence embedded in this language that becomes hardwired in your memory when you hear them week after week. Some of it is really quite beautiful. Aside from Sunday Mass, my parents insisted on the family saying the rosary together at night.
While I am not as devout with this practice as my parents were, rosary beads have become a symbol or talisman for the strength and comfort of family and of faith in something larger than ourselves that the repetition of these incantatory prayers somehow invokes. To this day, I carry rosary beads in my pocket or purse for this very reason.
AW: Considering the references to music in your collection, what is the role of sound and rhythm in these poems?
ANT: Poetry is an art form that aspires toward music. I strive for musicality in my poems simply because I feel that poetry must be, among other things, as pleasurable to the ear as a piece of music. My parents played piano and violin together, and my father constantly played music as we were growing up: from classical to jazz, to Broadway musicals, to “golden oldies.” I begged my parents for piano lessons at the age of 5 and continued taking lessons up to my college years. For me, music was a direct, almost visceral path to the emotions, and the release music could provide was even more immediate than language itself.
So, to be able to express emotional experiences in language, music would clearly have to come into play. I will often read my poems aloud to “hear” the lines as musical phrases, noting whether the lines sound melodious or clunky and revising the phrasing, rhythm, or sound as I see fit.
AW: Can you talk about the recurring theme of your mother?
ANT: When my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, it was a bewildering time for my family. She had always been at the center of our lives—the powerhouse that fueled our days, the keeper and teller of stories, the life of any gathering. She was also a well-loved doctor, a skilled pianist, and an exacting disciplinarian.
From her mother, she inherited a passion for cooking. In her family, food was the highest expression of love. Writing this book was, among other things, primarily a way of preserving what I could of the mother I knew, even as she began the slow decline into dementia.
It was also a way of coming to terms with the impending loss, in part by being watchful for whatever connections we could still forge as she came under the grips of this terrible disease.
In writing these poems, I found myself sifting through the stories she repeated, the food she loved, the songs she played on the piano, her quirky rituals, her anxieties, and her various expressions of love, imperfect as they sometimes were. The most insistent of those found their way into this book.
AW: There are three poems titled as, “Self-Portrait of…” What is the significance of this act (the act of creating a portrait of oneself) in regard to this collection?
ANT: The three poems, “Self Portrait as Water,” “Self Portrait as Rosary Beads,” and “Self Portrait as Revision,” are meant to redirect the reader’s attention to the speaker of these poems, and to consider how this person is changed by the events in her life—her mother’s decline, her body changing as she grows older while fulfilling various roles as young daughter, wife, mother (of young and then older children), and daughter of aging parents.
In a way, these self-portraits are a thread that weave the poems together, being the voice or the sensibility behind these poems—ever-evolving, morphing, and changing as life necessitates when one is thrust into various transitions, losses, and beginnings that are part of the ebb and flow of human experience.
Angela Narciso Torres is the author of Blood Orange (Willow Books, 2013) and What Happens Is Neither (Four Way Books, 2021); and winner of the 2019 Yeats Poetry Prize. Her recent work appears in POETRY, Missouri Review, and PANK.
A graduate of the Harvard Graduate School of Education and Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers, she has received fellowships from Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference and Ragdale Foundation. She serves as the reviews editor for RHINO. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Manila, she currently lives in South Florida.
Ada Wofford is a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison studying Library and Information Science. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Fairleigh Dickinson University with a BA in English Literature.
She is a Contributing Editor for The Blue Nib literary magazine, the Founding Editor of My Little Underground, and has been published by McSweeney’s, Fudoki Magazine, Burial Day Books, and more.
Sundress Publications is excited to announce that Anna Black and Brynn Martin will be taking the helm as our new chapbook editors. The two sat down with our editorial intern Nicole Drake to talk about some of the exciting titles and projects ahead of them. Black and Martin discuss their most treasured writing advice, some of their unique passions (natural building, embroidery), and the idea of editing as working toward a shared vision with the author.
Nicole Drake: How did you come on as an editor for the Sundress chapbook series?
Brynn Martin: I’ve worked for SAFTA since 2016 in a couple of different roles but I’ve always expressed to Erin that I’m interested in publishing/editing and the whole process of how a book comes to be. So when the editor position came open for the chapbook series, I jumped on it.
Anna Black: Sundress brought me on as an intern a long time ago. Since then I have worked as the editor of the Lyric Essentials series, the Poets in Pajamas curator, and now the Staff Director. Not all at once! I’ve been the assistant editor for most of our books over the last couple of years, and Erin knew I loved the editing side so of course when she asked me to, I was happy to be able to take on some chapbooks as an editor.
Drake: Can you give us an introduction to you and what you’re excited to bring to Sundress as an editor?
Black: My favorite works to read (and write) are eco and nature-based blow-your-hair-back-lick-your-neck words that rock with hard-core intersectional feminism and at least some hint of the grisly or magical. I love art and things that are weird — hybridity thrills me to the point of glee. I’m not sure what else there is to know about me. I’m a disabled, bi, animist, vegan Libra married to a Scorpio — we live in the PNW.
As an editor, I like to think that I’m looking not for what’s wrong (though that’s what people think of when they find out you’re an editor) because the book made it through our board and our judges to get selected in the first place (and we’re rigorous) so there’s not much wrong by that point.
But more that I’m hoping to use whatever vision I may possess by letting the writer look through my eyes. As when you point out new things to visitors in your town — you share with them a bit of the magic you’ve picked up by living there and knowing the space and when you point out the sculpture made by your friend or share the violent histories of your town, you see them shift, come alert, and spark with a connection born through seeing anew. I guess that’s what I hope to do as an editor more than anything — to let our writers see through my eyes and see their work in a new or deeper way. If we make a few changes here and there, together, along the way, then it’s because we shared a vision. So I guess that’s what I’m hoping for above all.
Martin: I’m a poet, Kansan, cat person, emerging foodie, and amateur macaron baker. I find a lot of peace in painting, embroidery, and other creative pursuits as well.
I’d say I bring my sense of humor, my passion for poetry, and my queerness to Sundress. The teams at Sundress and SAFTA are easily the most representative and welcoming that I’ve ever been a part of and it’s been refreshing to find a space that honors who I am while also allowing me to grow into my voice more.
Drake: What is the difference between a poetry collection and a chapbook?
Martin: The difference is primarily in the length; poetry collections are book-length manuscripts that run about 80+ pages. Chapbooks are often much shorter, between 10-30 pages. Because collections are longer, they will cover several topics and balance many themes, whereas a chapbook typically focuses on one theme or idea.
Black: Primarily the difference is the length. Full-length poetry collections are 45+ pages and chapbooks are “something less than that.” But it’s not as if chapbooks are unfinished collections. A good chapbook works within a shorter length and makes it a strength. A reader shouldn’t feel like the work has been cut short or that something is missing — so I guess rather than focusing on the length alone I would say that a chapbook is a book of poetry (or something else) that is at its best around 20-35 pages.
Drake: What projects are you working on now and what do you have coming up?
Martin: I run the Sh*tty First Drafts podcast with my roommate and friend Stephanie Phillips. We release new episodes about every two weeks, so follow us on social media and/or Spotify/iTunes/Google Play to see when we drop a new episode!
I’m also working on a manuscript of my own that I hope to send out this summer. Keep your fingers crossed for me.
Black: We just launched Hannah V Warren’s [re]construction of the necromancer which is an incredible chap that retells the Hansel and Gretel story in a skin-tingling feminist way. It’s witchy and wonderful in every way and Hannah and I made a few changes along the way that were just what I mentioned above: a shared vision. I’m really proud of this book and I know Hannah is, too.
Coming up: I’m still the assistant editor for most of our books so I’m buried right now as we try to get everything out the door for AWP. But if you have the chance, you should also check out Bury Me in Thunder by syan jay. which is just — wow — it’s an incredible honor to be a part of this book in whatever role. And we’re about to release The Familiar Wild, an anthology on dogs edited by Rachel Mennies and Ruth Awad. We’re about to release our first fiction title, too, by Robert Long Foreman, I Am Here to Make Friends — it has charts. Oh! And Maps of Injury is coming out, too. Chera Hammons’ writing is a pleasure. As a person who deals with chronic illness, this is a collection that will just shatter the ideas most people have of what an ill body is like.
Personally, I’m working on a few projects including a novel, my second poetry collection, and a couple of visual art and photography projects. I need more sleep.
Drake: Do you have a favorite poetry collection or chapbook from 2019 still rattling around in your head?
Martin: Oh man, so many! I read The Carrying by Ada Limón most recently on a trip to the mountains. I admire her work so much. Franny Choi’s Soft Science is also stunning — no surprise there. I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood by Tiana Clark was also a favorite, though I think it came out at the end of 2018. I could go on. There’s so much kick-ass poetry happening right now.
Black: Ruth Foley’s Dead Man’s Float was a world rocker for me. And Amy Watkins’ Wolf Daughter. Oh and Lessons in Breathing Underwater by HK Hummel. They were so good! I liked all of our 2019 titles, to be honest. This is too hard.
Drake: What book have you reread the most in your life?
Black: Oh um…okay you’re going to laugh. Probably Clan of the Cave Bear—the series up through the Mammoth Hunters. Though I haven’t reread it in many, many years—I’m afraid to. It would probably offend me now. I’d say it probably has the record though given my recollection of my twenties. There’s something about a book that grips you in your early years in a way that never leaves you and changes your view on the world. That’s special. I’d also have to say Mists of Avalon but not in many years and that was before I knew there was a controversy around the writer. In more recent years I turn to Loba, Woman and Nature, Bright Dead Things, The Chronology of Water, Gathering Moss, Object Lessons, We Who Love to Be Astonished—I’d better stop.
Martin: The most honest answer is probably The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I loved that book so much and had it read to me so often as a kiddo that I’d memorized the words and would “read” it to myself before I’d ever learned how to actually read.
In more recent years, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Breaks my heart every time.
Drake: What do you look for in a chapbook that really sets it apart from the rest?
Black: Well, the chapbooks aren’t chosen by an acquisitions editor at Sundress. They go through readers which include our board and then after the initial winnowing to the finalists, to a judge. So it doesn’t matter much what I like in that sense except that as a board member I do read like everyone else. I guess, though, that I’m always hoping for a chapbook that causes me to make little grunting sounds—which I do when something strikes me as I read. It’s like an “ungh” sound. Something like a person makes when they take the perfect bite of their favorite dessert. Which is to say, I want to be touched. I want to cry. I want to be mad or hurt or surprised as I read. I want to feel for the speaker. I want to feel present and absorbed. I want to hear it breathe in my head. I want to forget I’m reading.
Martin: I appreciate chapbooks that hone in on one thing: whether it’s an exploration of a relationship, or a theme, or even one image. Chapbooks that are focused and feel like one complete unit. Which is not to say that they can’t do weird or experimental things. In fact, I think a narrowed focus allows for more room to play and explore.
Drake: Do you favor the classically excellent or more innovative, experimental works?
Black: When I make my personal choices for reading it’s probably obvious by now that I bend toward the experimental, the strange, and the things that have been hidden from us all for far too long. But that’s just how I lean personally and not a rule. I’m not usually going to reach for things that aren’t pushing boundaries but when they happen into my life, I’m no less glad to have read them. As an editor, I honestly have no preference. I think there is room for all of the words except the hateful kind. There is incredible joy in an accessible poem. I love those, too. And just as much.
Martin: It probably sounds wishy-washy, but I have to say both. Innovative and experimental works can be really exciting and captivating, but only if those choices are grounded by craft. Using something like caesura for its own sake, rather than to illuminate or complicate something in the poem, is counterproductive in my opinion.
Drake: What is the most useful editing/writing advice you have ever received?
Black: Sally Ball taught me to read manuscripts in side-by-side view and I use this every day now for Sundress and with my other work as an editor, and I’m so thankful she taught me that and much more about close reading and pulling things out from the back edges of your brain so you can look at them…about when to fight over a cow, and when to let it go—she really is an incredible editor and one I aspire to be more like.
Martin: That it’s okay to not be writing all the time. So often advice to young writers is about a schedule and producing as much as possible and all these arbitrary things that you can only really do when you’re in a position of extreme privilege. Letting go of the expectation that I had to sit down and write for two hours every day to be considered a “real” writer was incredibly freeing. Everyone works at their own pace and in their own way.
Drake: If you could live as the villain in any book–across all years and genres–who would you choose?
Martin: Probably someone like Professor Moriarty. Having seemingly unlimited access to money and power is pretty sexy, not to mention getting to mess with and outsmart the hero. Plus, Andrew Scott’s portrayal in the BBC adaptation is spectacular.
Black: In Griffin’s Woman and Nature there is this horse. While not exactly a villain, it’s being tamed, or rather, some man is trying to tame the horse. And the horse is resistant and full of fight and passion and has these threatening hooves. And I guess it’s not really a villain but it is to the man, right? I want to be that horse. That daring, blasphemous, dangerous, wild horse. Or Medusa. I’m probably already Medusa.
Drake: As an editor, have you ever experienced regret at a line you absolutely adored but had to cut for the greater good? A literary “one that got away”?
Black: Hmmm, no? Not one that comes to mind anyway. Cutting is a good thing. It should be done when called for, and without compunction when necessary. But the trick is to know when it’s necessary, right? It may seem it, but then you read it back and realize that something was lost. So you put it back in. Cutting is never permanent. It’s like being able to try on any haircut with no regrets. That’s what makes editing fun — it’s not risky unless you’re mean to the author.
Martin: In my own work, absolutely and all the time, especially as a young(er) writer. I wrote lots of lines (even whole poems) that seemed, at the time, completely genius but were ultimately too saccharine or abstract to work. You have to be willing to be pretty brutal with your own work, in my opinion. Most of the poems that I’m proudest of are ones that were completely overhauled in their structure, form, image systems, etc.
As an editor for Sundress, not so much. Most of the work we accept is polished and more-or-less ready to go. Much of what I do is more about copy-editing, small edits for clarity, and working on ordering.
Drake: Finally, what is one non-editorial, non-bookish thing that you truly enjoy doing?
Martin: I mentioned this before but something I’ve gotten into recently is embroidering. It’s something to keep my hands busy while still allowing me to feel creative. The rhythm of it is really calming, too. I post my pieces up on Instagram @BrynnsieCrafts, if that’s something you’re into.
Black: Non-bookishly I love to kayak. I’m also a photographer. I love boats, natural building (cob, earthships, strawbale, earthbag and anything that equalizes housing). I frequently blast music like I’m still 17, so I must like it. I can easily be convinced to go to art galleries and studio tours, to spend time gardening, and doing anything that involves me getting to hang up my hammock. I can break the bank in an art supplies store. I’m not good at math.
Anna Black‘s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Collagist, The Seattle Times, Hotel Amerika, 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, SWWIM, The American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. She works as an editor and web operator based in the PNW as well as the Staff Director and an Associate Editor at Sundress Publications, and the poetry editor for Doubleback Review. More of her work can be seen at http://bylineblack.com.
Brynn Martin is a Kansas native living in Knoxville, where she received her MFA in poetry from the University of Tennessee. She is an Associate Editor for Sundress Publications and co-host of the podcast Shitty First Drafts. Her poetry has appeared in or is forthcoming from Contrary Magazine, Rogue Agent, FIVE:2:ONE, and Crab Orchard Review.
Nicole Drake is a graduate of Florida State University with a BA in Creative Writing. She has served as a reader for the Southeast Review and the Seven Hills Review and currently works as the Social Media Manager for Capital City Tattoo’z. She teaches dance and works her way through her endless “To Read” list in her spare time.
Ahead of the release, Sundress author syan jay sat down to discuss their forthcoming collection, Bury Me in Thunder(Sundress Publications, 2020) with editorial intern Kimberly Ann Priest. In the discussion they touched on writing through trauma, moving against colonial notions of research, landscapes as memory, and the ways we carry our homes with us wherever we go.
Kimberly Ann Priest: The book covers topics on abuse, confusion, intimacy, and pain. Were there ever moments when you felt like you were saying too much on these topics? Too little?
syan jay: Bury Me in Thunder was put together with care and thoughtful intention. Yes, it explores intergenerational trauma, illness, and pain. It also celebrates love, kinships, and the ways in which we learn to heal. To call back to my interview with Frontier Poetry, prioritizing my boundaries with writing is key. Every word, image, and piece, I reviewed to be mindful of what I was saying and how I was saying those things. I only felt the manuscript was completely finished when I felt fully in control of my narrative.
KAP: How do you make aesthetic choices and know where to break lines in a poem? Why the winding nature of these poems?
sj: I am a visual learner, and in understanding that landscapes are not linear, neither is my writing. Some pieces call for such breath, to expand and move as a river. Others call for structure. The poems tell me how they want to be made by how I write. Most of it comes through experimentation and trust in the process of self-editing.
KAP: Tell me, what research went into writing these poems?
sj: Quite a few of these poems are from personal or invented places. I remember Kaveh Akbar discussing Zbigniew Herbert and how there are cat writers and ox writers. Cat writers may wait for extended periods of time before being “hit” by inspiration and suddenly burst into writing. A majority of these pieces were written during these moments of spontaneity. Even the ones that did involve subsequent research, such as my poem “The Infant Machine”, were written without planning. I was listening to a podcast and the topic fit into scraps I had kept of other poems to work into a larger, final piece.
At the same time, I think the idea of research within poems is often within a colonial, Westernized framework. It carries the idea that there must be a source cited or be verified by some “objective” truth. This does not allow for Indigenous knowledge to exist on the same plane. Oral storytelling is research; how I carry the culture of my people through connections and sharing of knowledge is research. This process of Indigenous research was at the core of this book.
KAP: Do you feel it is important to draw attention to how traumas from our past and past generations inform our present and our future as individuals?
sj: Of course—we do not exist as singularities. Trauma is carried in our DNA, through memory, and in the body. BMIT seeks to draw on my own experiences. I don’t want to try and think that I can understand or claim the narratives of other people and their trauma. I do not experience the same violence and struggles that are faced by Brown and Black Indigenous people. BMIT was a reckoning toward my own healing, and being able to find clarity in what my ancestors, my family, and myself have experienced.
KAP: Talk about the women in your life. How have they formed and shaped you? How have they influenced you as a writer? And why do you think it is so important to write about the lives of women?
sj: Well, to start, I am not a woman but I was raised in girlhood. This book wasn’t looking to only discuss the lives of women. Much of it discusses my grandfather. I talk about missing and murdered Indigenous women because it is ongoing. Settler colonialism is a continuous project.
I dedicated this book to my mother, who has survived abuse and other traumas. She was the one who taught me how to write poetry as a way to show others my world and how I describe it. It helped me navigate the frightening experiences I was going through and to find another connection to land, beauty, and love. Even if the writing was filled with pain, it ultimately comes from a place of love and acceptance. She raised me with my siblings, most of whom are women.
My culture is matrilineal. Perhaps the work can be read as maternal and about women, but it is for myself and the generations that came before me. My priority will always be to my transgender and gender non-conforming kinships.
KAP: Talk about landscapes. I see a strong desert motif in the poems, but you also mention other places such as Nebraska and Oregon. Tell us about your relationship with landscapes; specifically, as home or lack of home and how it relates to your ancestors in this book.
sj: Deserts are not exclusive to the Southwest. My homelands have forests, mountains, and beautiful rivers too. Oregon has deserts, green valleys, and long coastlines. There is so much space to know and be with, and I wanted to acknowledge all of these places.
BMIT tells stories of all the places I’ve lived or where my loved ones lived, or even as I was on a plane flying over Nebraska writing a poem that one day became the title for this book. I am of the land and connected to it. I have a responsibility for its care because it takes care of me. This is how I was raised. It felt natural, then, while writing these poems to call to the land.
We are always tied to place, even if we leave it, because it exists in our memory. How we remember, what we remember, they inform our relationships to a place. I was not raised on my ancestral homelands, but it will always be a part of me because it is where my ancestors lived, it is near where my mother grew up. Home is a place you always carry with you, even as you create new homes and find new places.
KAP: What is significant about “teeth” in these poems? What do they represent or allude to?
sj: Our teeth provide evidence of where we are from. The land and what we have access to during childhood will influence how our bones grow. Scientists use isotope chemistry to look at tooth enamel and bone in order to measure geochemical signatures that carry evidence of where a person lived as a child. We can tell how someone lived, what they ate, and their access or barriers to nutritional food and clean water. The body carries so much and yet, we do not think of what we can find beyond what we say. What can the body say? What can teeth tell us about intergenerational trauma, legacies of forced malnourishment through cutting off access to traditional diets?
KAP: Tell us how you came to name your book and what this title means for you as an overall statement of the book’s content.
sj:Bury Me in Thunder was originally the title of a poem included in this book. I had been considering which of my poems could tie together all of the themes. The first versions of the manuscript were titled Mother Warhorse, from another poem. Eventually, I decided upon BMIT as I wanted to utilize the storm to frame these complex issues and stories. Thunderstorms are integral to my culture for many reasons, and it serves as an anchor to who I am. BMIT honors the legacies of where I come from and the process by which we heal. There will be ruptures and storms, but eventually, clear skies follow.
syan jay is an agender, Dził Łigai Si’an N’dee (White Mountain Apache) poet who resides in Massachusett/Nipmuc/Wampanoag land. They are the winner of the 2018 Pacific Spirit Poetry Prize and are Frontier Poetry’s 2019 Frontier New Voices Fellow. Their work is published/upcoming with The Shallow Ends, WILDNESS, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, and Black Warrior Review. You can find more of their work at www.syanjay.com.
Kimberly Ann Priest is the author of Still Life (PANK, forthcoming 2020), Parrot Flower (Glass Poetry Press, forthcoming 2020) and White Goat Black Sheep (FLP, 2018). Her work has appeared in several journals, including The Laurel Review, The Berkeley Poetry Review, and The New Delta Review. You can find her work at kimberlyannpriest.com.
Following the release of their chapbook, Space Baby, author Nicole Oquendo sat down with Sundress Publications‘ editorial intern, Jacquelyn Scott. They talked about form, desire, violence and forgiveness.
Jacquelyn Scott: Can you talk about the three different sections? How do they speak to each other?
Nicole Oquendo: I imagine the speaker transitioning in different ways as the narrative shifts between sections. They begin infatuated in this rapturous love with our “villain,” only to reveal their true nature as the poems progress. I see the middle section as a realization that they aren’t satisfied with experiencing love in all the ways they have up until this point; nothing is enough. In that third section, desire for more burns everything.
do you hope your work says about the violence we do to each other as human
beings or as partners?
is a complicated question, as many people, me included, experience love as a
violent thing, much like our protagonist. But there’s a fine line between
consensual violent play and what seeps into our speaker’s destructive behavior.
This is up for interpretation too, though, as their lover meets an end no more
violent than the deaths we know he inflicted upon others.
does our speaker interpret or give forgiveness? How far are they willing to go
think the love present at the start was more important, more necessary, than
any previous wrongdoing. And the nature of the wrongdoing is important, too.
Sometimes we do things we feel we have to and find ourselves trapped within the
constraints we’ve placed around ourselves. I believe this is the case for the
speaker’s partner, but also for the speaker as well at first. Even that great
love became a constraint that the speaker eventually burned free of. Forgiving
ourselves is important, too, and perhaps that final burning is the truest act
of forgiveness present in the book.
do you hope readers will take away from this act (or lack) of forgiveness?
book is in no way a guide on how to behave when you’re in love, but at the
core, these are love poems, and I’m of the mind that loving freely requires a
lack of constraint. We want to be bound, but we want the bindings to be the
ones we choose.
does desire play a role in your work?
NO: Desire is a huge driving force behind most of my work, and in many ways, like a lot of writers, I end up creating art that validates my own worldview. My neurodivergent lens (and the fact that my “emotional regulator” is frequently broken), chronic pain, and disability, in general, make both experiencing the feeling of desire and acting on desire arduous at best, but in a narrative world of my own making, I can experience it in whatever way I want.
did the written word limit or liberate that experience?
is beyond liberating, and the painting, as well. It doesn’t all have to be
about pain, though pain plays a role here. What I was able to focus on was a
strange joy that unfolds as the narrative does, and while some of this might be
toxic, to me it’s beautiful as well. And I hope I’ve crafted an experience
someone else can find beautiful.
characteristics of otherworldliness or space are essential in this chapbook?
love story is magical to me, and I wanted to set it against an appropriate
backdrop. We talk about the desire to see the world, going from our default
sheltered state to wide open, but raising the stakes, giving this protagonist
the ability to have entire galaxies a short trip away, made things even more
romantic in my eyes. The book might have started as Star Wars fanfiction,
but the settings in these poems were all deliberate.
do you hope readers take away from your work?
hope is that readers will feel the mood each poem is infused with and be able
to follow this narrative arc to a satisfying conclusion. Most of all, though, I
want the work to be fun. I’ve been writing a long time, and these poems are
some of my favorites. I don’t think I’ll ever connect to a project that is
unwaveringly happy on the surface, but I really think this protagonist finds a
happy ending in their own way.
projects are you working on right now?
wrote two fun books in a row, so, of course, now I’m back to chewing on more
difficult content. I don’t have any poems from my book-in-progress published
yet to share, but I can say that each poem is about different fathers growing
in unusual ways and eventually meeting unusual ends. I’ll spend a few months at
a time working on the projects that allow me to explore joy so I have the armor
I need to tackle the work that’s more deeply rooted in trauma, or the more
difficult stuff to deal with in general. This way, I never forget that writing
is something I love.
Nicole Oquendo is especially interested in nontraditional, multimodal compositions and translations in all genres. Their work can be found in numerous literary journals, as well as in the chapbooks some prophets, self is wolf, wringing gendered we, and Space Baby, and the hybrid memoir Telomeres. Nicole has also been serving the community since 2000, giving time as an editor to several literary journals and presses, and has been working as a writing educator since 2008.
Jacquelyn Scott is a student at The University of Tennessee where she is a candidate for her Master of Fine Arts in Fiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Blue Mountain Review, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, and The Write Launch. Find her on a hiking trail or on Twitter @jacquelynlscott.
The Vintage Sundress Series offers us an opportunity to catch up with writers who published with us in the past. In 2011, Daniel Crocker published Like a Fish with Sundress, followed by The One Where I Ruin Your Childhoodin 2015. He took a moment to speak with our Editorial Intern, Annie McIntosh, about how mental illness affects his writing and the future of poetry.
Annie McIntosh: I’ve often found phrases from pop culture or literature that just echo on a loop for me, sometimes for years—and you’ve talked about this before as well. Are there any poems that you’ve written, or maybe haven’t written yet, that have the same effect for you? What poems or lines still haunt you?
Daniel Crocker: Most of my OCD manifests itself through intrusive thoughts, so I understand where you’re coming from! Mostly they are dark thoughts about self-harm, how stupid I am, that one time 20 years ago I said something embarrassing, etc. There was one piece of pop culture that often repeats nonstop in one of these episodes. It’s from The Royal Tenenbaums. It’s when Richie looks into the mirror and says, “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow.” That’s a usual for me. Luckily, on the medication I’m on now I don’t have a lot of intrusive thoughts—usually only when I’m having high anxiety. Anyway, I did write a poem about a line getting stuck in your head from OCD. It’s “Jazz” from Shit House Rat.
AM: How has using black humor in your poetry and fiction informed your creative process, particularly when you’re drawing from deep places of childhood trauma?
DC: I just always used humor to cope, and often that humor is dark. Also, people like funny poems. It makes them happy, even if the underlying theme is depressing. I love reading them at poetry readings. Nothing makes me feel happier than when the audience laughs when I want them to laugh. Then, I bring the hammer down on them.
AM: What was it about Sesame Street characters that inspired you to have this dialogue about mental illness in your poetry?
DC: I thought many of them just lent themselves to bipolar symptoms. Snuffy is depression. Big Bird is mania. Cookie Monster is addiction. It just seemed like a natural connection for me. I think the first one I wrote was about Oscar the Grouch—that one is in Like a Fish. When I was working on Shit House Rat, I think I wrote the Snuffy poem first and after that everything else just fell into place.
AM: In your essay “Mania Makes Me A Better Poet,” you discuss the balancing act of mania/medication affecting your creativity as a poet. Do you have any advice for others in finding that balance? Does poetry ever trump being healthy?
DC: Sometimes poetry trumps being happy. Not as often as it used to, but sometimes. For the most part, however, I try to stay stable. I mean I have a family and a job. It’s good to stay as sane as possible. Though, I do want to clarify only a mildish mania (hypomania) is fun and creative. Full-blown mania is scary as hell.
AM: Where do you see poetry moving forward? Are there any poets we should really be paying attention to right now?
DC: I think it’s already moved forward just in my lifetime. I started in the ’90s small press poetry boom. The old cut and paste magazines. They were great. That was our time, though. Now, it’s time for new poets. I mean, I could have never imagined when I was 20 that there would be Instagram poets, YouTube poets, etc. I think it’s great. It is bringing a lot of attention to poetry in general. I also like that poetry is much more inclusive than it used to be—though it still has a way to go. When I was starting out, I was one of the few non-straight (I’m bi) poets I knew of.
Poets I love: John Dorsey, Rebecca Schumejda, Laura Kasishke, Erin Elizabeth Smith, David Taylor, Mike James, Tim Siebles, Nate Graziano, Chase Dimock, my wife Margaret, and there’s so many that I just can’t name them all.
AM: What are some future projects you’re working on right now?
DC: I have a new book coming out called Sick. It’s a split book with me and John Dorsey. I should have my first fiction collection in many years coming soon. Probably my last fiction collection too. After that, I might work on a memoir. I don’t know. I might just be done.
Daniel Crocker’s work has appeared in The Los Angeles Review, Hobart, Big Muddy, New World Writing, Stirring, Juked, The Chiron Review, The Mas Tequila Review and over 100 others. His books include Like a Fish (full length) and The One Where I Ruin Your Childhood (e-chap with thousands of downloads) both from Sundress Publications. Green Bean Press published several of his books in the ’90s and early 2000s. These include People Everyday and Other Poems, Long Live the 2 of Spades, the novel The Cornstalk Man, and the short story collection Do Not Look Directly Into Me. He has also published several chapbooks through various presses. His newest full length collection of poetry, Shit House Rat, was published by Spartan Press in September of 2017. Stubborn Mule Press published Leadwood: New and Selected Poems—1998-2018 in October 2018. He was the first winner of the Gerald Locklin Prize in poetry. He is the editor of The Cape Rock (Southeast Missouri State University) and the co-editor of Trailer Park Quarterly. He’s also the host of the podcast, Sanesplaining, about poetry, mental illness, and nerd stuff.
Annie McIntosh is an English major at Franklin College, where she writes about gender-queer studies in science fiction. She is the Lead Poetry Editor of Brave Voices Magazine and a Fiction Editorial Intern for Juxtaprose Magazine. Her poetry has appeared or is forthcoming from Okay Donkey, Theta Wave, Digital Americana Magazine, carte blanche, and others. She recently received her first Pushcart Prize nomination and was named one of Indiana’s Best Emerging Poets for 2018. Currently searching for a publication home for her first chapbook, she lives in Indianapolis with her partner and their dog, Jackson.
Prior to the release of his new poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham continues his interview with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker as they talk about landscape, space, and language in the making of trench poetry. This is part two of the interview. Part 1 can be found here.
Stephanie Marker: The geographic landscape also worked to shape the poetry. What was it like to recreate that landscape from memory? As a writer, can you speak to the process of weaving physical landscape into the language of your work?
Aaron Graham: Yeah, I suppose the way I conceived of this was that there is mirroring in the way warfighters experience war and the way one perceives a landscape. Like, all we know is really a set of concrete particulars. Like, this event happened at such and such a location at this time on a given patrol. While at the same moment, there were countless other events in the theater of combat, on different patrols, with other war-fighters flying air cover, or conducting reconnaissance, or interrogating an enemy combatant, or giving the last scrap of food from their only MRE to a kid whose parents had been killed by the insurgency the day before. So, a poem, or a collection of poems can only present a single blip on the radar of “the war.” I suppose the process of weaving the physical landscape into the language of the collection occurred more through the description or incorporation of the effect of the landscape on those who were in it. That’s another thing, too, about the military experience—even the landscape of a place is considered first in terms of its purposiveness. What do specific topographical features mean in terms of their ability to conceal threats or provide tactical leverage in a given situation? This results, both fortunately and unfortunately, I think, in an inability to even consider a landscape or a natural feature as an aesthetic object or from the perspective of aesthetics at all. So there was an attempt in the collection to resist that and to re-envision the place of all these events as having a vitality or an existence that animated the events that occurred within their reality.
I also remember the impression of the smallness of myself, as part of the war effort, as part of humanity, and more as part of the landscape. I mean the sand that I was walking on is the same sand that Paul was stricken blind in on the way to Damascus. There’s just a reverence and an awe that I felt when I thought about the totality of human experience that that landscape has witnessed play itself out. That was an interaction I wanted to try to capture in the sense of place the collection gave off—the smallness it made me feel, but not in a negative or insignificant way. It was in a fashion that I remember being, in some odd way, grateful for.
So maybe in that sense, there is no physical landscape in the work, I’m not sure. I started to consider this question and came to the realization that the physical landscapes I am rendering in the collection are much more the mental impressions or the affective states the natural world gave off, or created in me at the time, that remain in my memory with sufficient detail to become part of the linguistic topography of the collection.
SM: This collection also plays with psychological and emotional distance, and maybe the universal human habit of creating space for ourselves between us and the life that surrounds us. Can you speak to how you created these distances, these spaces, in your work? How you crafted your language to hold such spaces?
AG: So, one thing I realized in writing the poems that make up the collection is that being at a close proximity to death, either in your experiences literally being proximal to a lot of death, in your thinking through death a lot and trying to mentally prepare for it coming to find you, or in your thinking through death a lot to mentally prepare for putting an end to another human life, creates a psychological and emotional distance between yourself and life, in all of its forms, to the point that you cannot help but come to conceive of yourself as somehow apart from or separate from life. And this is something I’ve only come to realize in the last few years. And it really took the birth of my first daughter to bring me back into contact with life and in that moment I became aware of the gulf that had emerged in my own consciousness between myself and life in such a way that I became acutely aware of the distance, and for the first time since I enlisted in the Marines, made me feel any desire to close that chasm.
The interesting thing about the creation, or even merely the existence, of distance—whether psychological, emotional, geographic, or even temporal—entails the co-production of a border that delineates the end of that space we are capable of creating for ourselves and the beginning of the remainder of existence—what we each can control and that with which we struggle, each day of life. It’s the delineation that creates “Self” and “Other” but it’s also the delineation of order from chaos, and, no matter on what level of analysis you look at existence, these points of division arise and form a border. An attempt to delineate distinct wholes.
It seems impossible that experiences can create such a distance between one’s self, who is alive, and life itself, including the life one inherently participates in. I guess this is also what I perceive to be the misperception of the public about the sacrifice those who serve in the military make. The real threat, the real danger, in military service which those who go to war assume so that those who remain at home will hopefully never have to, is not the risk of getting killed. The real risk those who serve endure so civilians will not be required to, is the distance between self and other, between live-self and the other of death that collapses when one invites death into the world with their own hands. The Greek word “to wound” (Tramatus), literally taken, means “To pierce or to rupture” and, as I see, it is this distance between life and death, that is the space between self and other that collapses such that you cannot rupture the space between another’s life and their death without simultaneously rupturing a necessary barrier that preserves you from the damage a psychological proximity to death entails. And this rupture in what is a natural barrier between selves (my-self should never exist at the expense of your-self) is also a rupture of one’s own life by the same death dealt to the other.
So, when Levinas says, the face of the other contains the moral imperative “don’t kill me,” there is a reflexive imperative that states, “if you sever my connection to life, yours will be cut as well” and so in the act of killing, there is always already, self-slaughter. Which, if you buy into—I think I do—really makes you think differently about Shakespeare’s characterization of poor Hamlet’s predicament.
SM: Speaking more specifically to this psychological space, the speaker in this collection serves as a witness, and although present in these scenes, feels distant from them. Can you speak to this choice? What part did it play in telling this story, in constructing these landscapes?
AG: I suppose the choice comes from my reading of other poets after I got out of the Marine Corps. I didn’t really read at all before I went into the Marines and pretty much just skimmed some of the books on the Commandant’s Reading List and news articles in Arabic while I was enlisted. I started to read about three years after I got out, I guess to just try and make sense of things at first, or try to find something to relate to. The crowd of my fellow undergrads in the pre-medical program I was in possessed a set of experiences with which I just failed to relate and, so, I suppose I turned to literature to find what some folks made of their un-relatable experiences, and so I read about authors’ accounts of war.
One issue I faced was that, partly because of a TBI I had while enlisted and some cognitive difficulties in the aftermath of that, I didn’t have the capacity to read very much prose before my attention wandered and I had to get up and do something, so I kind of defaulted poetry because it was short enough. Generally, I could get through a poem without my mind blinking off or being disinterested or distracted by whatever was at hand. What I found was that the majority of “war poetry” seemed, to me, so heavy-handed and Manichaean in their treatment of their experiences of war, which I felt and feel are deep, complex, and rooted enough in fundamental questions of the human condition and our place and duty as human beings in relation to other human beings as to resist any hasty totalization or monolithic grand narratives of good triumphing over evil. I mean, in the world wars, or even Korea and Vietnam, there was more of a rationale for that kind of account. By which I mean that I could imagine warfighters seeing it along those lines, and how the experiences based on the sort of combat operations occurring in those conflicts could similarly be considered along those essentialist lines.
Still, especially concerning the more recent conflicts we’ve actively participated in, poems that present a narrative that reifies itself in terms like: war is hell, but we had God and justice on our side, so we prevailed against the bad guys by just being extremely badass, was just not helpful to me or representative of my experience and I came to think that it’s also unhelpful concerning the broader culture’s understanding of actual difficulties, and conflicts and situations folks are put in and endure in which the costs of war are most clearly visible. Poetry to me is a way to play out these impossibly difficult scenarios and leave the tension and the irresolution that characterizes the experience fully in the writing. Like, to read poems that have the speaker as a protagonist, heroically overcoming dangers and felling foes with Pietas reminiscent of Aeneas or that present all the moral evaluations, confusions of combat operations, and chaotic cognitive thrum one experiences…intellectually trying to make sense of something going sideways during an operation assumes a perspective and a level of clarity that I certainly can say I do not possess. So to end a poem with a moralization like: So, that’s exactly how it happened, so the good guys won that day, so freedom and liberty triumphed over evil, or even sometimes you gotta roll the hard-six and let the god of war take you in their hands, or, I’m alive so that alone justifies whatever happened in the field; gives the reader the dictate: “here’s what the experience was, here’s what I, the poet, think of it, and here is what you should take away from it.” This is, I think, wrong for a poem, because it gives the reader the impression that the experience can be directly comprehended at all, and not only that, but the poet has comprehended it, made sense of it, and realized how it fits seamlessly with the warrior ethos, the national narrative of exceptionalism, and the series of events in their life both before and after their military service. Really it is forcing a specific sense-making on the reader and places the poet in a position of authority over both the experience and the limits of its presentation, in verses, meaning. I think this ultimately betrays the duty of the poet—to culture, to her work, and to society.
Like, I don’t think I’m in a position to know or to say exactly what the ultimate impact or the deeper meaning of a certain event is. So, to circle back around to the actual question, the distance is intentional because I don’t want the speaker of the poems to be myself, to carry my own set of prejudgments, experiences, biases, values, and rationalizations. I don’t want ever to moralize or justify in a poem. So this psychological distance you aptly pick up on is precisely the space I’ve tried to vacate so the speaker in the poem can convey the emotional landscape of an experience such that can be inhabited by a reader, and its contours can mean something unique to them based on what they bring to the poem as another human being. I don’t want how I’ve rationalized and made sense of something to overdetermine and force out other readings or views of the experience. I guess, in the simplest of terms, the distance exists because I am trying to communicate that, not only do I admit, but, in fact, I find it quite likely, that I’m flat wrong about the meaning I’ve derived from many of these experiences and in my perception of how they’ve affected and continue to affect me. And I don’t know what these experiences mean, but I am certain there is something essential to the warrior ethos and human condition writ large that’s present in them, but to pretend I can pin down or totalize or even grasp in a concrete fashion what that is would be flatly untrue. So, in that sense, that psychological distance I intended as an attempt to invite the possibility of truth into the poetry and give it a place to abide where it can take on its own life by meeting whatever a reader brings to bear on a poem resonate with their humanity.
SM: There is more than one mention of Greek mythology in your collection—can you speak to this choice, and what part you see it playing in these landscapes you’ve created?
AG: The choice to use Greek Mythology, allusions, passages pulled from Greek source texts, I think one could call accidental but inevitable when trying to assess the topography of war, invasion, the psychological, sociological, political, personal, and physical costs of any war. Consider the Odyssey. The story isn’t about Odysseus, not really. The poem is about the cost of going to war for all those who are left behind by the soldiers and generals who leave to fight the war. Also, it’s about the cost the surviving warfighters pay themselves upon returning home and how they are implicated in the damage their absence has wrought. In fact, in the Greek conception of duty and social order, they cannot escape culpability for it. The story is about how, generationally, society is traumatized and deeply wounded in its perception of self, other, family, and neighbor as a result of prolonged campaigns of war. The Oikos and Polis are literally configured based on their mutual suspicion against each other, disrupting the structure of authority, productivity, and the social trust that allows such things like military campaigns, commerce, rule of law, foreign relations, and artistic production to be maximized in any society. If one believes Ann Carson in Eros the Bittersweet—which was a life-changing work for me when I read it, and thus I tend to believe her argument in it—the Greeks were incidentally involved in the conceptional innovation of thinking through how our bodies serve as the experiential containers for emotion—how embodied all emotion is—at the same time they considered by necessity how written language can be a container for speech and for the breath and the effect that can be spoken into a room, but that resists complete transposition in the written word.
I suppose, I mean, that, as a warfighter, there are very few words I experience more acutely and can bring me to tears faster than most of book IV of Odyssey. The epigraph for the poem “The Curse is a Hammer About to Drop” is taken from Book IV:
If Zeus of the far-reaching voice had allowed us to return together… I would have given him a city in Argos: I would have built him a palace, and brought him from Ithaca with all his possessions, his son and his people… Then we might have lived here together, with nothing to part us, loving, delighting in one another, until death’s black cloud covered us.
I do not know of a veteran who can read the words, meditate on what they’re actually expressing about the unique nature of the relationships between warfighters during a war and how that must be altered by the toll war takes and reevaluated after a war, and not be moved on the deepest of levels. So, I guess, to put it simply, there are some essential aspects of the effects of war on warriors and on their society the Greeks just get right and since I cannot outdo them in their perceptions of the human condition, I need to cite them for it.
SM: Is there a poem in this collection that speaks most strongly to its story as a whole? If so, in what way(s) does it encapsulate the collection’s mood or message?
AG: The Poem “Violence,” I think, best takes up the primary concern of the collection and conveys what I think is the general mood I hope the collection gives off. It tries to express the difficulty and frustration, as well as the humor and pleasure, language inevitably leaves all of us trapped in. The poem tries to laugh at the absurdity of the whole scenario and at the same time, emphasize the reverence I believe we should all pay it—merely for its (and our) existing. And by “it,” I think I mean idiom, life, love, war, anguish, and language. By which, I think I really mean humanity.
SM: Finally, there are, of course, literary traditions surrounding war. Do you see your work as a traditional telling of war, or as breaking with these traditions? Maybe a mix of both? And how?
AG: One thing I can say is that the military experience is vastly different for junior enlisted military personnel than it is for commissioned officers. The differences between experiences that exist in the military along these lines, when in garrison, compound exponentially in a theater of war. I’d certainly imagine that, as the military—and specifically, warfighting experience—of commissioned officers and enlisted marines is so divergent, their respective writings about the experience would diverge as well. So, one thought about the literary tradition surrounding war that I think is broken to some degree here is who is telling the story.
Almost every major, publicly known telling of war—especially poetic tellings, but also the vast majority the prose as well—regardless of their branch of service, was written by a commissioned officer.
This seems especially true of the poetry which has garnered national attention written in the Post-911 era. I mean, Here, Bullet by Brian Turner is likely the best known. He’s an officer with an MFA from an Ivy League. He goes into the military because he wants to write war poetry, so he’s in Iraq writing about what’s happening to the troops he is literally in command of and—maybe only theoretically—responsible for the well-being of. I think any enlisted servicemember would feel a certain kind of way about that kind of officer’s war poetry.
Redeployment, Phil Klay’s tremendous collection of short stories, which you can tell by its voice and language is DEFINITELY written by a Marine, is still the language of a Marine Corps officer. Ron Capps of the Veterans Writing Project out of Walter Reed and John’s Hopkins was Commissioned in the Army. Black Hawk Down was written by a journalist with no military affiliation. All you’ve really got to go on from the enlisted side is The Things They Carried, prose by Tim O’Brien. O’Brien was a sergeant in the Army in Vietnam, so he was at least enlisted. Still, I wonder if an NCO’s (Non-Commissioned Officer) experience of war—especially combat operations—may be drastically different from that of a Marine Lance Corporal or Private First Class.
They are the ones, at the age of 19 or 20, who are kicking all the doors in and stepping on IEDs and standing post in the middle of the desert with orders not to return fire because of political optics. So, I suppose I hope, in some small way, this collection gets the experience, the voice, the reality, of these warfighters—who make up 70–80 percent of the troops the Marine Corps fields in combat operations, into the literary side of the tradition. More than anything else, I hope if one of those warfighters picks up the collection and reads a few lines, they might think: “damn, yeah, that’s how it was….” That would be the largest break in tradition I could see these poems as perpetrating. It would also the greatest form of success I could hope for.
Aaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.
Stephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, and The Collagist, among others.
Prior to the release of his debut poetry collection, Blood Stripes (Sundress, 2019), Aaron Dylan Graham spoke with Sundress editorial intern Stephanie Marker about language, the untranslatable, distance, and the making of trench poetry. This is part 1 of a two-part series. The second in the series can be found here.
Stephanie Marker: Your collection examines the nature and shape of other languages—Farsi, Arabic, even the language of the military—and the ways that they are seemingly grafted onto the temporary culture of American military life overseas. Can you speak more to how those languages informed your work, your approach to your work on a language level? There is a similar grafting of local culture onto this temporary American military culture, already so separate from the culture back home. Few have experienced the creation of such a culture—how does this collection act as a study of that phenomenon?
Aaron Graham: Well, there’s this old theory that language is much more local than thought, that it’s closer to feeling and is even kind of co-determinant of feeling. I can say that, at least for my own personal experience, this has borne out. That said, each language has a feeling that is unique to it. And to feel in a foreign language is something different from thinking in it, and also not the same thing as knowing the word for an emotion in a foreign language. Of course, there is a great deal of crossover between what different languages can express or can express well. However, there are certain feelings, emotional states, that Arabic expresses very well, very specifically, that English only gets at more generally. Even within English, the sub-dialect of military jargon also expresses certain feelings, certain emotional states very well and in such a way that the feeling is much more acutely felt at the local level—by the individuals using this language daily—as it has co-developed along with their daily experience in order to describe and make sense of that experience.
This specific military language and contemporary experience in the United States military has contact with and thus is not devoid of meaning within the broader English-speaking community. However, the expressed feeling is received much more generally and much more vaguely apprehended by the civilian population, which lacks the closeness to the effects and experiences it has been shaped by or described.
So, I think they each inform my work in a different way because the objective of each language is, or at least was to me as I encountered and studied it, vastly different. For example, when I encountered the true language of the military for the first time, it was at Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. I had just finished my first year of college and, only a month prior to landing in California had been competing in the NCAA Speech and Debate National Tournament in Morehead, KY. There, I was giving extemporaneous speeches on tenable policy solutions to the Israeli Palestinian conflict—given the (then-new) development of the U.S.’s coalition’s invasion of Iraq; or debating whether, the individual’s constitutional right to privacy should be upheld when in conflict with the federal government’s claims that limited violations of those rights are necessary for national security, given the threat of global terrorism.
So, it was rather disconcerting to suddenly, two months later, be in Marine Corps Boot Camp where I’m expressly forbidden to refer to myself in the 1st person. (for anyone not familiar with the protocol of Marine Corps Boot Camp, new marines are mandated to refer to themselves only as “This Recruit” and will face the threat of bodily harm if they dare distinguish themselves as an individual apart from the platoon by uttering “I.” While the platoon of recruits was adjusting to this new linguistic formulation, it was not uncommon to hear—reverberating from some corner of the squad bay:
I?!…I?!…You want me to poke you in your goddamned eye?!
No!? No?1 N0?! No-What, (bitch)!?
No, Sir! Senior Drill Instructor Gunnery Sergeant Corossco, sir!
The whole time I was standing there thinking we are literally deconstructing subjectivity; we’re wiping the “I” from its connection to reality…this is wild.
The process of defamiliarization did not end there, however. There was a new nomenclature for what I had considered the most mundane of everyday objects. And you don’t really think about it but that basic level of language is what really affects the way you interact with the world. A pencil is now a “lead-stick.” A pen is an “ink-stick.” Showers are now “rain-trees.” Both glasses and windows become “portholes.” The restroom is the “head.” Using it is “making a head-call.” Hence a normal utterance to hear would be:
This recruit requests permission to speak to Drill Instructor Gunnery Sargent Atkins, sir.
This recruit requests permission to make a head-call, sir.
The thing is, the Marine Corps doesn’t waste time with anything that doesn’t work, that hasn’t been proven methodologically, overwhelmingly, to accomplish the particular objective it wishes to achieve. So, it was a little insane to see how language had already totally shifted its function and application within my first week at boot camp. Not only that, but that this deconstruction and this deterioration, which is how I viewed it at the time, was in fact constructed and intentional, it was being perpetrated on and then enacted by all of the recruits.
When I arrived at DLI and began Arabic Language training, the course was eight hours a day for 72 weeks and consisted of total immersion—meaning no English was to be spoken in the schoolhouse from day one. So, at Presidio of Monterey Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center, Middle East School III (POM DLIFLC ME-III), the instructors claimed they could tell who was going to rock out of the 72-week Arabic language course by the end of the 16th week. If you had not begun to dream in Arabic by the end of week 16 of the course you likely never would, which meant you did not FEEL in Arabic, which they were clear was not the same as knowing the Arabic name for a feeling, or talking about feelings in Arabic. The marker for success was that one felt in Arabic—which is a rather impossible phenomenon to describe, in any language.
But there is a great deal of truth to that statement if taken broadly. Because there is a unique feeling to a language that is not totally disconnected or disconnectable from the lived experience of those who speak it and whose daily experience it has arisen from and been transformed over time to describe. There is a basic level of the disposition and spirit of the people who speak a language that is somehow latent in the language, both in idioms and in normal translatable expressive thought. As a rough example of how the two are intertwined, the song a number of Arabic-speaking families sing on a family member’s birthday (phonetically rendered) goes, “Kool-ee sen-na woo ant-ta -tie-yib, ya-woo ell-bee car-eem woo tie-yib.”
Which means something to the effect of, “A whole year, and you’re doing all right. Your heart is noble, and you’re more or less O.K.”
This was telling, to me, because it paints a picture of the mentality and the outlook on the world individuals who would sing this song non-ironically, to mark the anniversary of a loved one’s coming into the world possess—even if in the most tertiary sort of way. And that’s both a remarkable and a beautiful thing language can and does do. Eventually, at some point, I came to realize in conjunction with my military linguistic experience, that, yes language is necessary and useful to describe reality and the objects we encounter through experience immersed in that reality, language also creates our reality and shapes it in ways I’m not sure enough people appreciate.
So, all this to say, the grafting of languages that occurs in the collection is both inevitable to a certain extent as I sift through everything and find the military jargon, for one thing, is more approximately the feeling I’m trying to communicate than either the Arabic or the standard English words will allow me to get at, or if an Arabic phrase has some relevancy to either the situation and experience that spawned the particular poem, I’m inclined to not translate it unless absolutely required to (i.e. the poem would be literally incomprehensible in the everyday sense of the word without the translation being provided in lieu of the transliteration or translation of the word or phrase).
SM: One thing that struck me particularly about the weaving of languages and language shapes was the seemingly urgent expression of the nature of these scenes, that there are elements of extreme experiences that can’t be translated, can’t be expressed fully in the language of an old life. Was this an intentional expression? If so, can you speak to the struggles of the process of writing the un-writable?
AG: I’m deeply humbled to be asked this question and suppose the discussion about the “shapes” of languages and shapes language takes may be helpful in thinking this through. The extreme elements of experience—whether hellish or ecstatic—I would argue are actually incommensurable—because the complexity of emotional intensities that accompany both the heights and depths of human experience cannot be characterized linguistically because we experience the word as embodied emotional and mental content. As such, we can communicate roughly about objects we come into contact with because we presume other folks also come into contact with them and also presume their experience of the objects to be more or less the same as our own. Yet, when we speak to someone else about their experiences, our baseline for giving meaning to the response they provide, whatever that is, must be and cannot exceed our own experiences of that emotional complexity.
So, for example, when someone says they “are more jealous than they have ever been in their entire life,” I can intellectually understand that emotion as a gradation of jealously near or at their peak capacity for jealous feelings. I can thus understand the relative severity of the state they are likely to be in—both mentally and emotionally. However, as far as my emotional understanding of what that level of jealousy feels like, or what someone else’s jealousy feels like at all, I have no ability or knowledge or experience whatsoever. Even if I know of an object by the same name, Jealously, I cannot interpersonally transmit that emotion, that deep feeling, and its specific intensity to anyone, through direct communication or even the most detailed description.
So in that sense, trying to create a negative space that can never come to be filled by any expression of any language—English or Arabic, Military or Civilian, Farsi or Dari—but that rather comes to be defined by its absence as illustrated by a network of “near misses.” A desmology of impossible spaces that comes to be defined only as a silhouette appearing in contrast to the collection’s misfires and failures to accurately define that negative space. However, the issue of language, as I came to believe, follows the notion put forward by T.S. Eliot, “the word Chimera is the beginning of the reality Chimera.” Words do more than feebly point toward an object of reference; they mark the history of our exploration of the world of concepts. And I suppose that sentiment is more or less a profession of faith of some sort. It’s a statement of a belief in a strong or non-semiotic theory of language where a word is more than an arbitrary or semi-arbitrary grouping of signs and signifiers that only have a loose relation to the reality they describe.
Poetry has the possibility to explode, decenter, and reconfigure meaning. While I know this is a vast overgeneralization, what I mean by it is that the language of poetry allows for the existence of unresolved questions, uncertain interpretations, confusion, contradiction, and outright paradox to exist within its reality. But it’s more than even that—in the conceptions of existence and experience poetry instantiates—it gives these points of ambiguity and conflict the central focus and holds them in tension. So there is this distance and this compression simultaneously occurring between the meaning given to words and reality we all inhabit. And I think the best thing about poetry as a genre is it looks at unanswered and unanswerable questions. Or, at least it doesn’t say: “thou shalt not ask unanswerable questions” or “Thou shalt not suggest that A = ~A.” Because in a poem I can be entirely serious about the validity of the statement “A = ~A” and then turn and leave it at that—with “A = ~A” just hanging in the air.
SM: Much of the imagery in your work is, of course, quite upsetting. Can you discuss the process of revisiting these scenes, not as a soldier, but with a mind for craft, as a writer?
AG: Well, there were certainly uncomfortably personal or troubling moments—ones that reemerged in interesting and unexpected ways while writing this collection. These gave me great pause sometimes and made me think of the whole project—of writing at all—in kind of the same terms you’re getting at here. In those moments, I tried, from a craft practice, not to flinch or offer some moralization, or tell the reader—either directly or indirectly—how they should feel about anything. That kind of lingering ambiguity or irresolution was the most authentic manner I could ultimately recount so many of these experiences and so it became the rendering I felt compelled to give. Where/when/if I’ve succeeded, I’m probably the worst person to say.
But I think that, really, the most frustrating thing, both about the military experience writ large and my own experience, is that these sort of intense, or traumatic, or muddled experiences, by their nature, strenuously resists any easy answers. In the moment something unsettling or disturbing or downright tragic happens and in the eternity that stretches forth from that moment, there’s not really that “ah-ha” moment where everything just falls into the correct place and sense is made in its entirety. The whole damn sequence of events and any tentative resolution you arrive at is always—to a greater or lesser degree—dissatisfying.
So, to offer some sort of moral bookend to the experience, or offer some platitude about what something might mean, how I have come to comprehend its significance in the greater mosaic of my life experience, or even just tolerate the fact it happened by repeatedly justifying its necessity to myself over the years, is really kind of disingenuous and, ultimately, just bullshit.
From the perspective of an intentional craft practice, I wanted to eliminate, as much as possible, any trace of what I thought, or have come to think, about the experiences. I try to communicate the emotional intensity of an experience—as close as I could get at least—without presenting my thoughts about the experience—this, hopefully, would allow a reader to get as close to the affective intensity of the initial experience as possible. I also know this was a doomed enterprise from before it ever began and that I cannot remove my consciousness from anything I write or do. So maybe it’s cognitive dissonance, but knowing full-well its impossibility, I tried to do it anyway.
The question, however, was never in my mind like, “Hmm, how do I make X experience poetic?” or “what about X patrol to Y province was/could be rendered poetically?” It’s a lot more like I had a number of events, images, scenes, words, perceptions that have existed barely below my conscious thought that would peek into it from time to time, unexpectedly for the span of over a decade. So, I had been wrestling more with the question of if I should put any of them down on paper much more than I was pondering how to put them down.
I guess, even today, when I mentally revisit any of those scenes, I revisit them as a Marine, as a warfighter, and not really with a craft-centric mind, or as “a writer.” I don’t think I would have had any interest in revisiting the scenes just as a writer, just as a renderer of one perspective of whatever happened as kind of historiography or a still-life.
My mind for craft in revisiting the scenes, experiences, images etc. all basically revolves around the same paradigm, which is to remove the speaker of the poem, or to negate his subjective presence sufficiently to allow someone who reads the poem to inhabit its space and its presentation of a set of emotions or experience and feel or live their own way through the situation based upon whatever life experiences they bring or bear on the poem and on the situation they happen to encounter the poem in. Ultimately, I’m of the opinion that me telling you what I felt about any given situation, any rationalizations I have made or excuses that have accrued to become “reasons” or to make sense of the experiences I’ve encountered is really rather boring, whether done in verse or prose—uninteresting and not particularly helpful to anyone, save maybe for myself, and I’m not sold entirely on that either.
Aaron Graham is a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. His work has appeared in f(r)iction magazine, Scalawag: A Journal of the South, and Rising Phoenix Press, among others. He served as the editor-in-chief for the Squaw Valley Review, is an alumnus of Squaw Valley Writers Workshop and The Ashbury Home School, and the Cambridge Writer’s Workshop. Aaron is currently attending UCNG’s MFA program in poetry and finishing his Ph.D. at Emory University. He currently resides in Greensboro, NC with this wife, Alana, and their three daughters, Alexi, Nora, and Naomi.
Stephanie Marker received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University in 2010, and her PhD in English from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2017. Originally from Kalamazoo, Michigan, she now resides in Tuscaloosa, Alabama with her partner and their two puppies. Her work has appeared in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Third Coast, and The Collagist, among others.