Anna: What are your feelings around this poem? What sparks for you?
Sonya: This poem both speaks to a certain moment in time, post 2016 election, but also to wider issues of resistance and identity. And I love its attitude and voice—a very subtle braiding of confidence, humor, and a kind of prophetic voice summoning the will to resist.
Anna: There is this moment in the seventh stanza where the speaker asks, “what are we but a fire?” And you can hear poets snapping agreement, assent, cohabitation in this phrase. And given what I know of your work and activism, I imagine you’re one of them. Can you speak to your own feelings about activism and poetry? Where do they intersect and where (if at all) do they dissect?
Sonya: I love the overlap between writing and activism in general, though when I was getting my MFA in 2000-2004, I was often ashamed about my activism in some weird way, as if I were leaving art behind when I was getting my hands dirty with real-world ideas. Even at the time that idea didn’t make sense, as I knew of so many political poets and writers, but I didn’t necessarily have the confidence to put my own political issues in my work without those issues coming off as partisan or didactic. I did it anyway, but with anxiety. I think these days that concern seems kind of quaint, as there are so so many political poets. And as poet Danez Smith has recently articulated, all poetry is political. I think where literary writing and poetry and activism diverge is that sometimes, one has to use language as a blunt instrument in activism, whereas in literary work, you’re always tending toward complexity. That said, even while those two aims are not the same, they are not diametrically opposed. They’re still kin. So I am of the school of thought that says that all art is political; sometimes a work’s politics is just more visible than others.
Anna: What is your impression of the reception of the poem?
Sonya: I found this poem after dozens of people forwarded and posted it on social media when it was published. It was covered on Quartz and on the Stranger among many other outlets and proclaimed a “rallying cry for the next four years.” I definitely agree. It seemed like such a fiery balm at the time I read it, and it remains that way.
Anna: Can you offer some of your impressions of the poet and Chavez’s work overall?
Sonya: Chavez, as far as I can find her online, is a slam poet based in Seattle who has inspired huge devotion with a few poems in print, and I am waiting for more from her. I can’t wait to read a book of her work if one comes out.
Anna: Is there a connection from this poem to your own work? What are some of Chavez’s technical moves that you’d like to embrace or in which you see a connection to your own work?
Sonya: I’ve been obsessed with voice for a long time, because I struggled to find my own writing voice and my voice in activism; I struggled to find a strong stance from which to speak. Whenever I see this kind of powerful stance related to activism, the combination of beauty and toughness and humor and focus, I take notice, because I need this myself. So I hope I am doing this work with my own writing, using beautifully voiced works like this as a model. What I admire most is the modulation in voice. Yes, this is a rant of resistance, but it’s also theory and humor and a snapshot of real life and a reminder to stay human.
I love the mix of colloquialism and dense language, like this pair of lines: “because real talk, you didn’t stop the future from coming./
You just delayed our coronation.” That use of “real talk” runs up against “delayed our coronation,” offering a wide range of tongues that the author has in command. The “delayed our coronation” is a kind of regal pause, a celebration. I love the line about “folks arguing ideology until even I want to punch them” because yes, that happens in activism, and so she’s stepping to the side of activism to laugh with it, and then she steps right back into the river: “but I won’t, because they’re my family.” She’s continually complicating and confounding, without making a big show of it; that folding of voices is in the DNA of the poem itself. The line “you brought your fists to a glitter fight”: gosh. If I could ever have a line like that. I love this so much, also because it’s so politically astute. In this poem’s “anxious America” is the analysis of all the different explanations for why Trump got elected. This complexity combined with confidence is my hope for my own essays and nonfiction.
Anna: When I asked you to do this, you mentioned that you’d have a hard time choosing. Which poems were some of the runners up?
Sonya: I love the poetry of Jack Gilbert, especially “Tear it Down.”
I love a lot of Wislawa Szymborska, Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich. Also this one by Marge Piercy, “To Be Of Use.”
Anna: Thank you, Soya, for being our guest today. To our readers, know that I invited Sonya because I am in love with her work and I’ve included some links to her work below her bio for your perusal so that I might share some of why I am such a fan of hers.
Sonya: Thank you for allowing me to think about and refuel on poetry!!
Elisa Chavez on tumblr
Sonya Huber is the author of five books of nonfiction, including the new collection of essays on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Other books include Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, Opa Nobody, The Backwards Research Guide for Writers, and The Evolution of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The New York Times, The Atlantic, O: The Oprah Magazine, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University, where she directs the low-residency MFA program.
Anna Lys Black serves as the editor-in-chief for Hayden’s Ferry Review at Arizona State University where she is a Virginia G. Piper global fellow and mere weeks from completion of her MFA. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others.